I have a hearing loss, as did my father, and believe me, it is not fun; but it seemed to have been a lot harder for him than it is for me (spoiler alert – I am a woman). He hid it as best as he could, smiling and nodding his way through conversations he was only pretending to hear. He never asked for help to hear better and could often be found sitting alone at social gatherings. I always thought he was shy, but now I know it was the hearing loss. He must have been exhausted and had given up on conversing with others.
Living with shame took its toll and over time he withdrew from work, from relationships and his health deteriorated. It is a sad story, and a scary one for me, given my own hearing loss and the possibility that I have passed it along genetically to my children.
Part of the trouble for him may have been the times.
My father grew up when men were not encouraged to show emotions. Physical weakness was mocked and health problems were hidden behind closed doors, or in the case of my father, behind his sideburns grown long for that purpose. He was a product of his generation, which certainly made things harder. The hearing aid technology was also not as advanced, so perhaps he grew frustrated after several attempts with hearing aids that did not solve his problems.
Some of the difficulty was likely the hearing loss itself.
Hearing loss is an invisible disability and is widely misunderstood. People often think of hearing loss much like being nearsighted. They assume that hearing aids restore your hearing to normal, just like wearing glasses allows you to see just as well as anyone else. This is not the case. Hearing aids are helpful in amplifying sounds, but this just makes things louder, not necessarily crisper or clearer. Most people with hearing loss can hear that someone is talking to them, they just can’t understand what words are being said. The clarity is not there.
But a large part of the issue may have been the fact that he was a man.
Recent research conducted at Harvard University and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston showed that men have a harder time explaining their hearing loss to others, and provide fewer actionable suggestions about how to better communicate with them.
While a woman might say, “My hearing is worse on the right side, please sit to my left,” a man might offer only “I have hearing issues, so please speak up.” The more specific instructions provided by the woman set up a better communication situation and one that is more likely to be successful for both of the people involved.
Now I am a parent — of a daughter and a son. Given the genetic nature of my hearing loss, I fear I may have passed it onto them. Since it is adult-onset, we won’t know for another 15 years or so. In the meantime, I work hard to model appropriate behavior, just in case.
I became a hearing health advocate and serve on the Board of Hearing Loss Association Of America. I write a LivingWithHearingLoss.com blog and actively advocate for myself within the family group. I refuse to hide my hearing loss, I discuss it openly and give specific suggestions to others on how they can help me to hear better.
I do this all for myself, but also to model the behavior for my children, just in case. I want both my daughter and my son to be skilled at asking for the help they need, and to not feel shame should they have a problem hearing.
My family has gotten quite skilled at following my suggestions — facing me when they speak and remembering not to cover their mouth with their hands so I can see their lips. Whenever I see my young son size up a seating arrangement and point me to the most advantageous seat, I feel relief. I hope he will not have to experience hearing loss, but if he does, he will be a man different from my father. He will not be ashamed, he will know how to ask for help, and he won’t let hearing loss overtake his life.
Hearing loss can make life more challenging — at work, at play and everywhere in between. But when armed with an open and accepting attitude, a supportive group of friends and family, and the willingness to experiment a little, it does not need to overtake your life. If you or someone you love has hearing loss, please encourage them to seek out the help they need. Many resources are now available so nobody needs to take on this issue alone.
Readers, do you think hearing loss is easier for women?
A version of this post first appeared on The Good Men Project.