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(RACHEL IDZERDA FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(RACHEL IDZERDA FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why I'm up to my ears in old people Add to ...

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Bang! For one ghastly moment I thought I had been shot.

Looking up from my chair, I saw the audiologist smiling at me while brandishing a stapler. She had just stapled my credit card receipt to the invoice for my new hearing aids. “How do they feel?” she asked, as I adjusted this unfamiliar obstruction in my left ear. “Just f-fine” I stammered, relief plainly evident in my reply.

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It was December, 1999. For years, my hearing had been deteriorating, but somehow I managed to survive with judicious guesswork when I missed the beginning of a question, or wasn’t sure of some key word (did she say “fast” or “last”?). Higher-pitched female voices gave me particular problems. In office meetings, everyone would laugh at a joke. I would join in the mirth, with no idea what we were laughing about. Frequently I would respond with the right answer to the wrong question.

Finally I succumbed to my wife’s entreaties to have my hearing tested. The audiologist directed me to a sound-proofed cubicle, where I donned headphones. A series of notes of different frequencies and amplitudes sounded in one ear at a time. Whenever I detected the sound I raised a finger. After the test she produced a chart revealing the classic symptoms of hearing loss in both ears in the upper frequency range.

Possibly my problem stemmed from my high school days, when I did considerable competition rifle shooting at outdoor ranges. Hearing protection was unheard of then, and my eardrums would ring for a full minute after a rifle discharged. Or my hearing loss may have been inherited. My maternal grandmother was nearly deaf in her 20s, and later used an ear trumpet.

Leaving the hearing clinic with my new ears installed, I became aware of soft swishing sounds every time a vehicle passed on the snow-clogged street. I suddenly realized that it had been many years since I had detected that sound. Later I would marvel at the songs of small birds. I had not heard their high-pitched tweets and chirps for a decade at least.

Those first hearing aids fitted directly inside the ear and were quite conspicuous. Of smooth, skin-coloured plastic, they had a bulbous, slightly obscene appearance and an equally obscene price tag. For the $5,600 that I paid, I could have purchased a used car in fairly good condition. I used them for a year or two until one day they stopped working. It turned out that they had both suffered water damage (which was not covered by the warranty) and were not repairable.

Discouraged, I gave up on hearing aids for several years. Eventually I acquired a new set, which I was assured reflected important advances in audiological technology but was half the price of the original pair. But I had problems with them and eventually gave up on those too.

Recently, however, I purchased a new set of hearing aids that are marvels of miniaturization. Each resembles the head of a tiny bird that nestles behind the top of the ear. From the beak a long fine plastic tube curves gracefully down, tucked inside the shell of the ear, terminating in a tiny plastic cone inserted into the ear canal. The result is a cunning little device that defies detection by all but the most observant.

The results have been most satisfying. Now I can detect swallows twittering from the eaves of my house and can hear most conversation. At a recent symphony concert I could discern every high note played by the violins. Previously I would watch in frustration as the bows sawed soundlessly across the strings.

The hearing aid batteries resemble small pills, and seem to last seven or eight days. When the battery charge wanes, a series of beeps are repeated at intervals in my ear. A louder sound like a door chime signals the battery has expired. This can be confusing. The other day I was halfway down the stairs to the front door before I realized that my right hearing aid battery had died.

These days I see hearing aids all over the place. Mind you, I am pretty good at spotting them unless they are worn by women who can conceal them under their hair.

Which reminds me, have you noticed how many old people there are around these days? I see them everywhere: in the shopping mall during the day, lining up in the pharmacy and at my local community centre.

Where have all the young people gone? Even my friends are in various stages of decomposition.

What’s that you say? I am evaporating? What do you mean, “evaporating”?

Oh, you mean e-x-a-g-g-e-r-a-t-i-n-g! Well, before I answer, let me install my new ears. Where are the darned things? Why do they make them so small? It used to be you could see the little beggars. Now I will need my glasses, if I could only remember where I left them.

Come to think of it, I could have sworn that I took my anti-ranting pill this morning. But, you know, I could have easily confused it for one of those dead hearing aid batteries that I sometimes carelessly leave on my bedside table.

John Nixon lives in West Vancouver.

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