Deafness - It’s not something you normally think about.

But, one thing is certain… sooner or later it will impact on you and your relationships with the family and your working and social lives.

I’m talking about … going deaf. Not if. For most it’s when.

Most people seem to equate this with deteriorating eyesight and old age:

“Oh well, I can easily get a pair of spectacles to rectify it.” Well, of course, you can get hearing aids but it’s not quite as simple as that. I’ll come back to this later.

If you’re fortunate enough to have experienced no significant hearing loss you’re probably not going to show too much sympathy for the individual who repeatedly asks you “What did you say?” After repeating it at least three times – the worst thing you can reply is “Oh … it doesn’t matter!” It does matter, otherwise you wouldn’t have said it in the first place.

Tell-tale signs

Hearing impairment creeps up on you at whatever age of onset but the tell-tale signs are all too common. Is the television volume up higher than it used to be? At times, are inappropriate responses given to questions? Is the accusation of ‘mumbling’ being targeted at the speaker? (Lots of other examples too) Denial of increasing hearing loss causes the most problems and tensions.

Hearing aids

Hearing aids take a long time to get used to (unlike spectacles which is an instant remedy) and the determination of the wearer is a factor. Expensive aids can be discarded to the back of a drawer just because the user simply isn’t prepared to persevere.

There’s been terrific technological advances in recent years but, at best, aids can only amplify the sound that’s being emitted and they can never correct sound or fill gaps. The private hearing aid lobby will tell you all sorts of things you want to believe about their product but, in my experience, NHS aids are perfectly acceptable for the job in hand. There’s also lots of other environmental aids and adaptations available such as headphones linking the television direct to the user, vibrating pads or flashing-light indicators that can alert you to the doorbell ringing, the alarm clock going off or that the building you’re in is on fire!

Communication loss

But the greatest impact of hearing loss is on … communication. The language spoken is the lifeblood of communication between humans who use the same language … the relaxed flow of thoughts, ideas and feelings which can’t be conveyed by the written word because tone and how the message is being delivered is all too personal.

You take it for granted: the banter and familiarity of everyday life, the secret conversations between the sheets and the free flow of chatter – often innocuous – but it’s all nevertheless part of our human existence.

All this verbal activity reduces over time as communication becomes a chore both to speaker and listener. Gradually the individual draws in to themselves and avoids social situations. You sometimes find that hard-of-hearing people ‘take over’ conversations because, at least, if you control the dialogue then the risks of not hearing dramatically reduce. Group situations become nightmares. By the time you’ve turned to whoever’s speaking – you’ve already lost the thread of the conversation!

A chancy business

Lip reading? Always a chancy business. Have you ever tried it?

Get your partner to speak to you without using your voice for ten minutes. You’ll soon come unstuck I guarantee! The speech sounds b,m and p all look the same on the lips and what about the invisible letters c,g,h and k? It’s a guessing game unless you have some inkling of what’s coming. Think about the word ‘clock’ for example. Could be clock but then it could be ‘lock’ or even ‘knock’. If you’d already been talking about time as a subject then ‘clock’ might be a pretty good guess.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Tell the person you’re speaking with that you have a hearing loss. Face them and tell them not to shout (it distorts words) and to speak a little more clearly, enunciating the words more carefully. Just recently I asked the young woman assistant in a shop to remove her mask so that I could lip read her. She refused and carried on talking as though nothing had been said. Don’t put up with it. Complain and once management realises that deaf customers can hit their sales targets by not buying their products they may change their tactics. On the other hand, it can bring out the best in people. I asked a health professional at Portimão hospital if it was possible for me to eat normally before a procedure using local anaesthetic. She too wore a mask but she made it quite plain by gesturing eating and drinking, rubbing her stomach and then giving me a ‘thumbs up’ indicating that it would be okay to eat and drink.

You’ll probably never learn formal Sign Language as many born deaf people do but facial expression, body language and gesture can all add to the richness of communicating with your fellow being.

Above all – maintain a sense of humour! It can only help.

Adventitious deafness (going completely deaf overnight or over a longer period) and congenital deafness (born deaf people) … more about these in future articles.