“There must be something wrong with Jean’s phone,” my mother-in-law Sue said. “She’s the only person I can’t understand when I make a call.” At first I figured this must be true as Sue’s sister Jean lives way out in the country with a landline phone that must be antique. So, I chalked it up to Ma Bell and let it go.
But soon it became clear there were other people Sue could not understand — including me. “Speak louder,” she started telling me, when she wasn’t asking me to repeat myself.
I suggested that perhaps it was time she consider a hearing aid.
”I don’t need one,” she insisted. Things might have gone on that way if it hadn’t been for one of Sue’s doctors, who suggested a very inexpensive alternative — no hearing tests, fittings, and no worrying about how it looks to the outside world.
A simple amplifier may do
We bought her a PocketTalker. It is a small box-like, battery-powered amplifier that comes with a miniature microphone, an ear bud and headphones. The device helped her watch television without turning the volume to full blast. And when I held the microphone up to my Iphone speaker, and she put on the headphones, it was a pleasure to watch Sue and her sister chatting away happily.
Audiology tests and prescription hearing aids can be a tough sell to loved ones, particularly those who don’t think they need them. At an average cost of $4,700, not covered by Medicare, they require a significant commitment of money, not to mention the time required to seek out a licensed professional and endure what to some seniors may seem like a very intense hearing test.
According to an NIH study “among the adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 1 in 3 (30 percent) has ever used them.”
Among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 1 in 3 has ever used them.
But now there are cheaper — albeit not as sophisticated or completely suitable — alternatives for many people with mild to moderate hearing loss: personal sound amplification products or PSAPs, and more recently products called wearables, amplified ear pieces that can stream music, TV shows and other Bluetooth-enabled materials.
To find out more specifics, I spoke with audiologist Dr. Lindsey Banks, the founder and editor of the website everydayhearing.com. The website has numerous articles on hearing devices, hearing aids and hearing loss with specific detailed recommendations.
Over-the-counter or online
Dr. Banks says much of the technology that makes all these devices possible has been around for several years, but now as more unregulated products are sold online, a variety of PSAPs and wearables are readily available.
Banks cautions that the sophistication of processing in these devices varies widely. Something under $100 “is probably not going to do a very good job at filtering out background noise or making music quality sound good. You pay for what you get. There are some that are very, very basic and others that will do a pretty good job of giving you pretty good sound quality.”
And since a customer doesn’t have much professional support with these products, a lot of times people don’t use them correctly. Hence a dissatisfaction with the result.
Nonetheless, there are several trusted websites where one can check out PSAPs and wearable options. A Johns Hopkins study of PSAP devices, conducted by audiologist Nicholas Reed, is summarized in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) in the July 2017 issue. The PSAPs were tested in a calibrated sound booth and compared to a more expensive hearing aid; the results can be found at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2635618.
Consumer Reports has also covered PSAPs and wearables. The article points out that some of these devices may help those with mild to moderate hearing loss and it recommends that after a professional hearing test, your audiologist should be consulted as to a specific recommendation. The products tested include wearables and PSAPs and specific detailed information on what the testers liked and disliked, as well as specific advice as to how to use them.
Also coming in a year or two: some drugstore over-the-counter hearing devices that, unlike PSAPs and wearables, will be regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration. All of these options are less expensive than professionally prescribed hearing aids and might be helpful for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
Expect some compromises
The devices are not perfect.
The PocketTalker we tried, for example, is not discreet, and my mother-in-law certainly did not want to use it outside her nursing home room. And even there, she often does not want to go to the trouble to wear the headphones.
So we made another push to encourage her to get a regular hearing aid. She took the test, but still remains adamantly opposed. She’s not feeling well, and it just feels like too much trouble.
Our final option — and a good one — may be a free phone from Caption Call (https://captioncall.com). Funded by the federal government, the service offers people whose hearing loss has been tested by an audiologist with a phone that provides an immediate transcript so the user can read what’s said in real time. To get one, just get a professional audiologist to sign off that you need it, have an Internet connection, and get it hooked up for free by the company’s professional installer. The phone has a directory so the user can just push a name to make a call. And you can also turn up the volume.
Will my mother-in-law use it? I hope so. I’d like to see her talking with her sister again.
Alyne Ellis is a national radio host and producer whose career includes an AARP radio show, a long career as an editor at NPR, and an internationally distributed series on disabilities. She currently freelances as a writer and can be reached through her website http://www.alyneellis.com/