I’m Gradually Losing My Hearing. (It’s Part of Aging.)

During a department meeting today, I noticed I was feeling very disengaged. I was having trouble following what my colleges were saying, unless

  1. They were speaking one at a time
  2. They were projecting (no sotto voce or vocal fry)
  3. I could see their lips.

I could usually get by with 2 of the 3, but only sometimes with 1 out of 3.

I found myself scrolling through emails and looking through Google Docs in the hopes of catching myself up so that I could contribute meaningfully.

I’ve been blessedly, ridiculously, healthy all my life. My doctor tells me there’s nothing medically wrong with my ears, so there’s nothing to treat. I’m just not 20 anymore. Or 30. Or 40.

I worked up the courage to say something to my colleagues after attending several panels on accessibility at the big annual conference for college writing teachers this weekend.

My colleagues were all very understanding.

Whenever I teach, I can ask students to speak up, or I can move closer to whomever is speaking.

But in that particular meeting room, with a loud fan running, a table configuration where I saw a lot of people in profile, and a lot of crosstalk, it was a strain for me to follow along, much less contribute.

I’ll have to start getting there earlier so I can arrange the tables in more of a circle.

At home, I have no trouble listening to audiobooks at bedtime, but it occurs to me that lately I’ve started playing computer games and watching videos with the captions on. Still, I’ve felt no less fully engaged in the musicals I’ve performed in recently. Last weekend when I was singing from the congregation at church, someone a few pews over said she recognized my voice and that she missed hearing me sing in choir.

So I’m not Beethoven, pounding despearately on the keys with my ear pressed to the piano and hoping to hear SOMETHING.

Just as my vision has changed to the point where now I use bifocals, my hearing loss is measurable, especially in the range of an alto’s voice.

Guess what my wife’s voice is.

When she calls out from the next room in the middle of the night in an urgent whisper, I hear white noise and possibly the “s” sound in “Dennis.”

While I am brushing my teeth, or when she is in the other room and my head is in the refrigerator or I’m doing the dishes, and the TV’s on and our resident drama queen is in the kitchen tap-dancing or belting a show tune (or both), I simply can’t make out what my wife is saying if I can’t also see her lips.

I’ll say, “You want me to blank-blank the blank-blank,” tellling her exactly which syllables I think I caught. She will sometimes respond with a big-picture explanation of why it’s important that I pay attention to her, when what I really need is for her to supply the missing syllables so I have a chance to understand what she’s talking about. It’s always fun when it turns out she’s not actually talking to me, but she’s calling out to someone else in a different part of the house.

When my son realizes I only caught part of what he said, he will just face me and repeat himself. My daughter will affect a comicallly low-pitched voice: “I’m talking like a dude in a range my dad can hear better,” and I appreciate both her effort and the humor.

My father recently got a hearing aid, at about 85. It’s made telephone conversations with him much more enjoyable. Still, my hearing loss is nowhere near where I would benefit from a hearing aid.

So this isn’t a crisis; I don’t think it seriously affects my teaching, though I have had to point out if students have a mannerism of putting their hand over their mouth (out of shyness, or thoughtfully stroking their chin) I have explained that I am having trouble following them.

All this is helping me to remember: when I catch a student who doesn’t seem to be following along during class, my empathic response should be, ”What do you need from me in order that you can follow along better?”

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