Ear here

The difficult business of writing is made easier by addressing something that’s pre-occupying me. Physically small, it’s in other respects sizeable. It’s my missing hearing aid.

An acquaintance of Joan, who’s suffered enough to know, in a recent talk proposed there are the wonderful things in life, and there are the dark things in life, and in between there are the mundane things. For the time being, I’m mining the mundanities for their brighter moments. I, for one, do not want to lose, in a coma of familiarity, the sense of their value, the satisfaction they can bring, the time they take, nor, I suppose, the opportunity for living-in-the-moment they provide.

Age has made my ears larger but, counter-intuitively, my hearing’s got worse. Yes, various academic studies in the 90’s established that our ears and noses do indeed continue to grow until the day we die. Comparing a 25 year old photograph of myself to my reflection in the hall mirror, I estimate my ears have grown by nearly a centimetre in that time. By this logic, eventually I’ll become stone deaf despite having huge ears; a grotesque irony, to be sure. Elephants’ enormous ears act as cooling apparatus so I’ll probably die of hyperthermia into the bargain and when they put me in the box they’ll have to fold my ears over to get them in, or something.

Five or six years ago Joan insisted that I have my hearing tested, for she was being sorely tested by having to repeat much of what she said. I was sceptical. I thought it was largely Joan’s propensity to hold a conversation above the sound of the kettle coming to a furious boil, or say, The Archers of which she is a devotee. In the interest of domestic harmony, I duly got a referral from my GP and went for a test at the local hospital. After pressing a button whenever I heard a sound, however minute, in the earphones provided, for what seemed a surprisingly long time, the audiologiste showed me the graph indicating that I had what she described as normal loss of acuity in the higher frequencies, and, crucially, that I qualified for free hearing aids.

It maybe that with age the nouns are first to desert coherent thought (see James’ comment on ‘Memory stick’, a previous blog) but in hearing, it’s the consonants, because it’s the consonants that generate the high frequencies. Without sharp consonants speech has a more or less submarine timbre to the ancient ear.

To be honest I was still pretty sceptical, and didn’t try very seriously with them for months. I remember sitting in a café with my sister after a visit to the botanical gardens, saying I thought the NHS should be more careful with its money because I certainly didn’t need hearing aids. I suppose my hearing must have gone further downhill because I started to use them more, but the revelation came when my daughter from my first marriage, Carole, showed me how to put them in properly.

The first sound I heard after she’d lodged them correctly was that of someone opening a packet of Cheezy Wotsits, probably to keep grandchildren quiet. I was astonished to believe I’d heard what was unquestionably distant gunfire. For about three years now I’ve found them indispensable.

They take some getting used to, mind, and their most annoying feature is their tendency to stop working if even the tiniest piece of wax blocks the earpiece. When I was first issued with my hearing aids I was also given two nylon filaments which are used to poke through the tiny earpiece tubes to dislodge the mere salt grain sized piece of wax blocking the hole in the earpiece.

Now, I wear my fingernails pretty short, and just picking up one of these was a small nightmare of scratching around trying to affect a pincer grip on it. On one occasion I even tried to pick one up with my tongue.

Eventually I found a really nifty little device that cracked the problem (on Amazon, of course). It consists of a small red plastic ovoid in two dimensions, a circle in the third, a sort of tubby tiddlywink. From a single point of origin on the edge of this, four nylon filaments protrude like whiskers. As before you push one of these through to clear any blockage, but the difference is that it’s very easy to see and so to find, and it’s very easy to manipulate because my fine motor skills are still well up to picking up a tiddlywink, especially if it’s somewhat obese.

So why don’t you just get your ears cleared of wax? It’s a good question. The reason is the remedy recommended and practised by the GP’s surgery: dropping olive oil into the ear, stuffing cotton wool in to secure it for about twenty minutes each day for at least a week, before going to the surgery to have it syringed out. This is a frightful messy faff, olive oil all over the pillows, if not sheets for instance; a serious deterrent to an impatient and clumsy old man.

Things came to head recently. I wear those NHS aids that look like small silver leeches and hang just behind the ear. In most circumstances the fitting is reasonably secure, but from time to time the earpiece gets inadvertently dislodged, perhaps when I take my glasses off or put them on, and that’s when they’re at their most precarious. I’ve lost one of them on a number of occasions, including once in the car, down that impossible crack between the front seat runners and the gearbox console, where a couple of topless biros, for some weird reason, hang out, but they’ve always turned up. At our place things do turn up sometimes, and sometimes they don’t.

Two or three weeks ago I lay down to go to bed. This is when I take out the aids and put them on the bedside table ready for the morning, when I listen to the Today programme as I’m waking up. I put the left aid safely down, but when I came to feel for the right, there was nothing there.

In the following days unsparing effort was made to find the missing aid, including phone calls to places I’d visited on the day the loss was discovered, but all leads went cold. So next was to enquire about a replacement. The hospital’s Audiology receptionist was very helpful and politely told me that I would have to pay £50. Fair enough, I thought. Of course people should have some incentive to be careful because the devices are provided at public expense. Off I went to my appointment and even found a close-by parking space at the hospital. This was a walk-in clinic, and I was seen after only about five minutes. The audiologist, a congenial you man, inspected my ears and announced that I’d wax in both and that I should have it removed. He repeated the usual olive oil and cotton wool circus act, while I thought there must be a better way than playing clown for a week. Apart from this though, and I’ll not be pusillanimous, I rejoice that, despite some limitations, this was excellent NHS service.

Interestingly my audiologist also said that wax build-up was the cause of the harmonic tweets, squeaks and whistles that can be set off particularly by music but also by other random noises, mostly in the left aid. If you ever catch such hearing aid harmonics, you’ll know the wearer needs their ears cleaned. We live and learn; knowledge is power.

There must be a better way, and so there is. It’s called micro-suction. Tinternet showed me there are a number of clinics in my part of town though some are not particularly close. I picked one down- town which could easily be reached on free (for me) public transport, mainly because it was a Monday when this clinic offered a 25% discount on the regular £80 fee.

The procedure was straightforward enough. This audiologist, as ever, young and personable, poked and sucked, and in the case of both ears, I felt him remove something and saw him setting it aside. A few more gentle little sucks and the job was done. I registered but didn’t inspect the two dark little pellets laid neatly on a piece of tissue on the work-top. They looked positively archaeological, if you want to know, though why would you? Lucre was passed over. A better way has been found. Sure enough the harmonic squeaks disappeared, their tell-tale give-away of the need for aural hygiene silenced. The whiskery one will lie idle for a bit I dare say, and an annual check-up is the future rule.

I am pretty impressed by my Oticon Corda2 Zest hearing aids, most notably for their ability to withstand a soaking. When I put my silver leeches on in the morning as I listen to the radio in bed, I’m heading for a trap: that I forget to take them out before I have my shower. I’ve done this a number of times. The first was very stressful, because I didn’t realise it wasn’t a serious problem. Very soon I realised I had them on, and as soon as I did, I dashed out of the shower dripping water everywhere, took the batteries out opened them up, tried to mop the inside with scraps of super absorbent lav paper, and sat there wrapped in a towel holding Joan’s hairdryer to them. They steamed a tiny amount, but sure enough they survived, and over various re-occurrences I’ve become quite blasé about it all. These days I just take them off and put them outside the shower, and carry on. Once I’ve dried myself, I calmly take out the batteries and put the aids on a radiator to dry out. It works a dream.

I’m not without criticism of the NHS audiology service. The main improvement that could be made without very much difficulty is in the area of replacement tubes and domes of the earpiece. Over time the tubes become more brittle and I was told by one of the several charming audiologists, they should be replaced every six months. The current system requires the ‘patient’ to report to the Audiology walk-in clinic in person, whereat replacement tubes are issued. This is an unnecessary drag, but ensures that the correct earpiece tubes and domes are supplied. What’s more they’re free, not a trivial matter when you see the prices charged by specialist suppliers. But to save all parties time and money, surely Audiology could just send their patients replacement earpieces in the post every six months, or at whatever interval they consider appropriate, and only ask patients to come in for routine examinations when deemed necessary or emergencies. I’m afraid it would all be too much for them.

This whole experience of sorting out my silver leeches makes me feel very good, if not smug. It’s taken time to get to this high point in my relationship with my ears; better late than never. It’s not just that it’s done. It’s done with some ease. As in much of life these days, tinternet played a huge part in making treatment easier and cheaper to arrange. It’s wondrous to think of the vast technical and social apparatus that exists to make it possible for me to book an appointment online at the most competitive rate and six hours later to walk out of the clinic with the problem fixed. I recoil to think what it might have been like a hundred years ago.

A hundred years ago, if not dead, I ‘ld likely be a deaf, blind and toothless old codger. I’m still alive, can see, hear, eat and smile without demur. I don’t even regard myself an old codger, however solipsistic that may sound, and at least my defects are not turning me into an old curmudgeon yet, I hope, though Joan may disagree. Glasses, silver leeches, and the obligatory two minutes brushing the teeth, these children of progress, help keep me from total decrepitude, and long may it last.


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