I have a hearing loss, as did my father, and believe me, it is not fun; but it seemed to have been a lot harder for him than it is for me (spoiler alert – I am a woman). He hid it as best as he could, smiling and nodding his way through conversations he was only pretending to hear. He never asked for help to hear better, that I can remember, and could often be found sitting alone at social gatherings. I always thought he was shy, but now I know it was the hearing loss. He must have been exhausted and had given up on interacting with others.
Living with shame took its toll and over time he withdrew from work, from relationships and his health deteriorated. It is a sad story, and a scary one for me, given my own hearing loss and the possibility that I have passed it along genetically to my children.
Part of the trouble for him may have been the times.
My father grew up when men were not encouraged to show emotions. Physical weakness was mocked and health problems were hidden behind closed doors, or in the case of my father, behind his sideburns grown long for that purpose. He was a product of his generation, which certainly made things harder. The hearing aid technology was also not as advanced, so perhaps he grew frustrated after several attempts with hearing aids that did not solve his problems.
Some of the difficulty was likely the hearing loss itself.
Hearing loss is an invisible disability and is widely misunderstood. People often think of hearing loss much like being nearsighted. They assume that hearing aids restore your hearing to normal, just like wearing glasses allows you to see just as well as anyone else. This is not the case.
Hearing aids are helpful in amplifying sounds, but this just makes things louder, not necessarily crisper or clearer. Most people with hearing loss can hear that someone is talking to them, they just can’t understand what words are being said. The clarity is not there.
Hearing aids also have a tough time differentiating among sounds so that the background noise (i.e., the hum of the refrigerator or the air conditioner) is amplified in addition to the more important sounds of the conversation. This can actually make it harder to hear in certain situations.
But a large part of the issue may have been the fact that he was a man. Recent research conducted at Harvard University and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston showed that men have a harder time explaining their hearing loss to others, and provide fewer actionable suggestions about how to better communicate with them.
While a woman might say, “My hearing is worse on the right side, please sit to my left,” a man might offer only “I have hearing issues, so please speak up.” The more specific instructions provided by the woman set up a better communication situation and one that is more likely to be successful for both of the people involved.
Now I am a parent — of a daughter and a son. Given the genetic nature of my hearing loss, I fear I may have passed it onto them. Since it is adult-onset, we won’t know for another 15 years or so. In the meantime, I work hard to model appropriate behavior, just in case.
I became a hearing health advocate and serve on two Boards of leading hearing organizations: Hearing Loss Association Of America and Hearing Health Foundation. I write this blog and actively advocate for myself within the family group. I refuse to hide my hearing loss, I discuss it openly and give specific suggestions to others on how they can help me to hear better.
I do this all for myself, but also to model the behavior for my children, just in case. I want both my daughter and my son to be skilled at asking for the help they need, and to not feel shame should they have a problem hearing.
My family has gotten quite skilled at following my suggestions—facing me when they speak and remembering not to cover their mouth with their hands so I can see their lips. Whenever I see my 10-year-old son size up a seating arrangement and point me to the most advantageous seat, I feel relief. I hope he will not have to experience hearing loss, but if he does, he will be a man different from my father. He will not be ashamed, he will know how to ask for help, and he won’t let hearing loss overtake his life.
Here are some things you can do to support the men in your life that have a hearing loss.
- Encourage him to accept his hearing loss and treat it. Sometimes it is hard to accept—it took me 10 years to come out of my hearing loss closet—but the quicker he does, the sooner he can reengage with life. You need to accept it too, and not criticize him for it. Hearing loss cannot be seen as shameful.
- Experiment in different settings to determine the best ways for him to hear. Try various seating arrangements at the dinner table, or try out a few different settings on his hearing aid when out to dinner to see which one works best. The more he knows about his hearing loss and how to work around it, the better equipped he will be to handle different social situations. Practice builds confidence.
- Understand that hearing is hard work for him. While hearing comes second nature to most people, when you have a hearing loss it requires a significant amount of concentration. Encourage him to take breaks in high communication settings so that he can maintain focus and stamina. Be compassionate if he needs quiet every now and then.
- Support his self-advocacy. Ask for quiet tables in restaurants and request that the music is turned down. Arrive early to social events to identify the best seating and take it. Learn about hearing assistance devices such as hearing loops and caption readers for plays and movies and use them.
Discuss his hearing loss in everyday conversation. The more his hearing issues are out in the open, the better other people can accommodate his needs. Keeping it a secret makes it shameful, which can lead to depression and withdrawal.
- Encourage him to talk to others with hearing loss. This can be difficult if you don’t know people with hearing loss, but your doctor or audiologist may have some ideas. He should also look online for local chapters of hearing loss support organizations like Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). Through HLAA I have met many wonderful new friends, all of whom have hearing loss.
- Show that you value your hearing by protecting it. Teach boys (and girls too!) about the importance of hearing protection. Wear earplugs at sporting events and at concerts and keep extra pairs handy to share with others. Demand that music be consumed only at safe listening levels.
Hearing loss can make life more challenging — at work, at play and everywhere in between. But when armed with an open and accepting attitude, a supportive group of friends and family, and the willingness to experiment a little, it does not need to overtake your life. If you or someone you love has hearing loss, please encourage them to seek out the help they need. Many resources are now available so that they don’t need to take on this issue alone.
This post first appeared on The Good Men Project.