People with hearing loss may experience an almost total loss of self esteem (as well as) loss of confidence, growing introversion, embarrassment and social withdrawal also may result.”Brooks (1983)
I have heard several patients telling me what it is like to lose your hearing and how difficult it made everyday life. One recently told me:
“…I get embarrassed so often it’s just terrible and my family have no patience with me. They treat me like I’m stupid, but I don’t think that I am!”
She was not sure if she was ‘getting stupid with old age” or whether it was her hearing loss. She had been treated that way so often that even she started to believe it. Comments like these made me realise that I didn’t understand what it is like to lose your hearing. Until I understood this, I could not show true empathy to my patients, it would only be an act. I therefore decided to live as a hearing impaired person for a day to get a better insight into the problems they face.
How I lost my hearing for the day
To find out what it is like to lose your hearing I had to generate the hearing loss. I decided to wear earplugs for a whole day. I chose a Saturday’s shopping trip to Birmingham, using the train. This way I would meet more people, thus forcing myself to interact with others. It was also a journey that I knew well.
What is it like to lose your hearing for a day?
Initially when I put the earplugs in at 9am, I turned the TV up; our normal volume level was 10, but because I could not hear this, I turned it up till I could. At a level of 25 I could hear the people talking on TV as a whisper.
When out walking, I used my eyes to look for cars rather than hearing them. The problem was that you can normally hear the car before you see it, especially around corners. A number of occasions I went to cross the road but my wife stopped me because she could hear a car coming. This surprised me each time and made me feel unequally yoked with my wife.
I pretended to hear when I couldn’t
I could not hear my wife talking very well when we were walking. I could not see her face to lip read at the same time as I was looking where I was going. As I could not hear what she said I had to ask her to repeat herself.
After a while I felt that she was getting a bit frustrated with this repetition. I tried to use my peripheral vision to look out for any body clues that suggested she was about to talk. This could be a slight turning of the head, a deep breath, the slight raise of her arm. I could then quickly turn to look at her before she started; this way I would not need to ask her to repeat what she said.
This worked quite well; more often than not I got what she was saying. But on the few occasions I didn’t, I found myself pretending that I heard her by saying yes or making a u-hum sound; which I felt would reassured her that I was listening.
I spoke too quietly as a result of my hearing problem
Surprisingly I found that my wife seemed to be asking me to repeat what I said more often than I was asking her. She said that I was talking a lot quieter than normal. I felt quite uncomfortable talking any louder than I was already because it felt to me like I was shouting. Not great when you are in a public place. As a result of this problem, I found that I did not want to talk as much and felt uncomfortable about not hearing.
One advantage of a hearing impediment
When we got on the train I was dreading having to ask the ticket instructor for a ticket in case I could not hear them, or they could not hear me. I didn’t want to appear to be rude if they didn’t know what is like to lose your hearing. But when this happened I seemed to be fine. Not being able to hear much of the commotion around me was quite nice and relaxing. This helped me to concentrate of reading my book.
As a deaf person I lacked the confidence to complain
Part of the purpose for the trip was to use a voucher that we received as a wedding present. Once we went to pay for a purchase, the electronic system for taking voucher payments was down. They refused to but it through, saying that we would have to come back another day. Normally I would be the one to complain about the inconvenience. However I did not feel confident in hearing their reply to my questions. Worried I would embarrass my wife, I walked away and I felt angry with myself for not doing anything.
The impact of background noise in public places
I found it hard to hear what my wife was saying when we were eating at a restaurant. I would be able to hear what she said when I was looking at her. However, when I was looking down at my food, like you do when you are trying to eat, everything was just a guess. This made meaningful conversation difficult.
Loud music in shops did not seem very loud to me. However I did find I was able to hear the male shop assistant in a shop playing very loud music. I had problems hearing the female assistant in a shop playing quieter music. Not all people with hearing problems experience this.
What is it like if your partner is hard of hearing?
At the end of the day I asked my wife what is was like being out and about with someone who was unable to hear. This is what she told me;
• She was concerned when I was driving that I could not hear the traffic. This made her extra cautious, she did not feel like she could relax. When talking in the car she had to talk loudly which made her feel she was distracting me from driving.
• Talking loudly was quite a strain on her voice and especially when we were in shops, in crowds or near traffic.
• Sometimes she felt like she couldn’t be bothered to tell me things, as she would either have to shout, use lots of gestures or repeat herself.
• She was very aware that she needed to look after me and gain my full attention before she started to talk to me; this was difficult in busy places.
• She was worried to leave me as she felt that I may need her to help when talking to sales assistants in shops etc.
• She was anxious around busy roads because I could not hear busy traffic.
• At the train station she was always worried about missing the announcements (as our train was diverted) she felt very responsible.
• She found that often she could not hear me because I was whispering and would have to ask me to repeat myself quite frequently.
• On the train she felt like she couldn’t speak to me, as if she did she would have to raise her voice to the extent that she felt everyone around us would hear the conversation – that made her feel uncomfortable, so mostly sat and said nothing.
• At the end of the day she felt very tired because of her need to be extra vigilant through out the day. It seemed to take a lot of effort being with someone who could not hear properly.
My experience of hearing loss
This experience helped me to gain a better understanding of what it is like to lose your hearing and how it can effect your life. I noticed how it can affect your relationship with others. How, when we were in public places my wife felt she could not talk to me because she would have to raise her voice, but then others could hear.
Some of the most common situations in which meaningful conversations seem to take place are at the dinner table when eating and at night in bed and I missed that.
I found that my wife slipped into a more proactive role and, because of this, I became more passive. In the longer term I may also have become less confident. I understand how the hearing impaired would find this frustrating. I have noticed in consultation rooms a partner will often reply on the patient’s behalf.
I found it very helpful to live as someone with hearing loss for the day. I have a better understanding of my patients’ problems. This has improved my ability to empathise. It has also enabled me to provide a better service.