Like many of the 10 million Americans over age 50 who care for their parents, we had to deal with hearing problems. But our frustration led to a surprising discovery. We had been caring for our elderly mother who suffered severe hearing loss and had become increasingly distant and alone in her quiet world. She had a hearing aid, but when we visited her, the batteries were often dead, clogged, out of adjustment or had fallen under the dresser. Grandma just wasn’t comfortable with electronic hearing devices.As middle-aged baby boomers, we knew many of our peers had the same problem.
Their elderly parents were often isolated by aural plus, even with hearing aids. Many had become increasingly frustrated with high tech, expensive electronics and needed a solution.Visits with Grandma became awkward. We cupped our hands over her hearing aid and asked loudly, “Mom, can you hear me.” She’d shake her head. No. She couldn’t understand our words.We tried battery powered devices. But she didn’t like ear buds and didn’t like ear phones in her hair. It seemed like she had always just been to the hair salon! Several electronic devices ended up abandoned in a dresser drawer.
One day, on a whim, I took a piece of paper, folded it into a cone and stuck it in her ear. “Mom, can you hear me.” “Oh yes. I didn’t know you were here!” She turned toward me smiling. My little paper ear trumpet worked! Somehow the sound of my voice parted the haze of dementia and awakened something in her mind.I went online and researched ear trumpets and conversation tubes and found they have been around 400 years! They were in extensive use until about 1920. And they, apparently, worked very well.
So, I went down to my workshop and began to turn out various shaped speaking bells and ear pieces. An audiologist, who happened to have several antique hearing devices, tested our designs and compared them to the antiques. Surprisingly, even with today’s better materials, it was hard to beat the amplification of the best of his antique hearing aids. But we kept altering the components until we had a working, non-electric, effective, sound amplifier that enabled the severely hearing impaired to hear our real, non-digitized voice over a distance of several feet.
Like the antiques, our hearing device amplifies sound about 400% in the frequencies that count most for intelligibility. It evolved to a 48-inch flexible tube with a speaking “bell” and ear piece with a handle. The ear piece seals the ear to eliminate background noise. Its length provides conversation over a table or chair-to-chair. The handle makes it comfortable for Grandma to hold. It worked great for short talks and visitation.This experience caused us to re-think our dependence on high-tech solutions and to think back to the times when things were simpler. Hearing aids and sound amplifiers are wonderful, but in certain circumstances, simpler can be better.