Dear Savvy Senior:
What tips can you offer people who are shopping for hearing aids?
With so many choices and options available today, shopping for a hearing aid that meets your needs, lifestyle and budget can be challenging. Here are some tips that can help you locate a good hearing aid provider and choose an appropriate aid.
Choose a Provider
The first step in buying a hearing aid is to choose a good provider. The best option -- as recommended by Consumer Reports -- is an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat doctor) who employs an audiologist that fits and dispenses hearing aids.
An otolaryngologist will first examine your ears and rule out any medical conditions such as a tumor, bacterial infection or ear wax that can affect your hearing. Medicare will cover the medical exam and an audiologist's test if ordered by a physician.
If you can't find a conveniently located doctor's office that dispenses aids, an independent audiologist or hearing instrument specialist is a good alternative. To search for these professionals in your area, see howsyourhearing.org and ihsinfo.org. Big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco also sell hearing aids.
Or, if you're a veteran, be sure to check with your nearest VA health facility. Eligible veterans may be able to get hearing aids for free.
During Your Visit
After you locate a provider, when you go in for your first visit you need to be prepared to discuss your lifestyle and hearing needs. For example: Do you just want to hear the TV, or other people speaking? Do you talk on the phone a lot? Do you need to hear in a lot of noisy places, like restaurants? Knowing your priorities will help your provider determine what style and hearing aid technology is best for you.
You'll also be given a hearing test in a soundproof booth to determine what type of hearing loss you have. After the test, your provider should give you a choice of hearing aid brands, features and styles to consider.
To help you decide, ask for a demonstration. Many providers are able to put a disposable plug on the tip of a behind-the-ear hearing aid and program the device to your hearing loss so you can experience how it works.
Also ask about popular add-on features like "telecoils" that helps with phone conversations, "directional microphones" that can help you hear in noisy places and "feedback cancellation" that prevents the aid from squealing when you get too close to other audio equipment. But, keep in mind that the extra features will drive up the price.
At the Fitting
After you buy your hearing aid, don't leave the office without making sure it physically fits your ear and that it does what you want it to do. To help with this, ask to have a "real-ear" test which measures the match between your hearing loss and the response of your hearing aid.
Also get a signed copy of a contract that outlines the hearing aid you're buying, along with the price, trial period, any nonrefundable fees and the warranty. Most manufacturers allow a 30- to 60-day trial period to be sure you're satisfied, and provide follow-up visits to help you with needed adjustments or questions.
You also need to know that digital hearing aids are expensive, typically costing between $1,000 and $3,500 per ear, and they're not covered by traditional Medicare or most private insurance companies. To look for help, call the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at 800-241-1044 and ask them to mail you their list of financial resources for hearing aids.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.