By Ginger Orr and Bonnie Miller Rubin and Tribune Staff Writers
December 26, 1998For Patricia Miemczewski, Christmas Day at her sister's house in Streamwood was all she expected: The family gathered together around a table heaped with delicious food--and they repeated every word very loudly to her 64-year-old father.
"I'll yell, `Dad, do you want turkey?' over and over," said the 41-year-old woman, who has grown increasingly frustrated with her father's refusal to wear a hearing aid.
While the holidays can bring untold joy for families brought together after months of separation, it also can be a rude awakening to adult children who must grapple with the fact that their parents are getting older and that sensory or physical capabilities may have deteriorated. Hearing loss is among the most obvious manifestations.
And for the Boomer generation, seeing such changes in their aging parents isn't always pleasant.
"When families get together--especially after long periods of time--that is when the discoveries are made," said Dr. Cheryl Woodson, director of the Ingalls Geriatric Consultation Center in Calumet City.
For Miemczewski, it means confronting her father's hearing loss, which has grown progressively worse over the last two years.
"He's an intelligent man, but he's stubborn," she said. "He refuses to go to a doctor. He says, `I can hear just fine.' "
But he can't.
So he spent Christmas afternoon in front of a blaring TV or sitting in the corner of the room, not saying anything at all, according to his daughter. He no longer talks football because he can't discern his son-in-law's low, monotone voice.
Why are so many people in denial over hearing loss? Half of those 65 and older have some diminished capabilities; of those, only 20 percent actually seek help. The resistance remains, say experts, despite technological advances in the last few years that have made those big, boxy hearing devices all but obsolete.
More perplexing, how can anyone think an acoustic aid is symptomatic of aging, but screaming or cupping a hand behind the ear with an "Eh?" is not?
While the first signs of hearing loss occur around age 42, it remains a stereotype associated with the elderly. That's the chief reason that people balk, typically waiting 10 to 15 years before taking action, experts say.
"To many, it's the first tangible sign of losing their independence," Woodson said. "There's a stigma . . . having this piece of plastic in their ear screams `I'm old!' "
Ronna Fisher, a Chicago clinical audiologist, knows firsthand the toll hearing impairment can take on relationships. "My father was a social, active man, but when he started losing his hearing, he stopped going to the theater, parties . . . and even withdrew from his family," she said.
She has seen the same scenario bring countless patients in for help.
"There's the whole battle . . . the TV is blasting, the yelling, the accusations that others are mumbling," Fisher said. "One patient is so angry, he just pushes himself away from the table. . . . It's his way of physically separating himself from the rest of the family."
The situation is a challenge for a spouse, as well.
"You can only repeat yourself so many times before you eventually say, `Forget it,' " said Fisher, who has practiced for 20 years. "There's a loss of intimacy and spontaneity. You can't whisper. . . . You stop going to movies and social gatherings because it's not enjoyable for the person who can't hear and it's not enjoyable for the person who has to act like the interpreter."
And bruised feelings and misunderstandings can be ascribed to a breakdown in communications.
One woman was at Thanksgiving dinner when a friend mentioned that her father had recently died. The woman smiled, nodded and replied, "That's great." The friend looked at her in horror and left the table, Fisher said.
While price can also be a deterrent--state-of-the-art hearing aids, no larger than a fingernail, can range from $2,500 to $3,500 per ear--the biggest obstacle is still appearance, regardless of age.
"I thought it was only for old people, and I didn't consider myself old," said Ebba Ackmann, 93, of Elgin.
The irony is that in refusing to wear a hearing aid, others may chalk up confused or withdrawn behavior to senility. Experts say there's also a use-it-or-lose-it consequence: Recent studies have shown that sound deprivation can result in further hearing loss, making early detection all the more crucial.
Younger people are getting the message, turning hearing aids into a fashion statement in much the same way they did with eyeglasses. Brightly hued, oversize devices are popular with consumers in their 40s and 50s, who are suffering the consequences of a noisier world and a steady diet of rock music.
"Every concert you ever attended aged your ears 2 1/2 years," Fisher said.
Experts hope that a younger market will eventually help erase the stigma, but concede that day is still a long way off.
After years of catching a word here or there and becoming a master lip reader, Ackmann's son and daughter finally convinced Ackmann to get an aid.
"They said they were tired of repeating everything," Ackmann said. "I had a fit. I didn't want to go. I thought I could hear good enough."
Today, however, she won't leave home without the aid, which fits discreetly in her left ear.
Many seniors resist until they hear friends rave about their rediscovered hearing, Woodson said.
"Peer pressure works even at 70. It's not just a teenage thing," Woodson said. "They're much more likely to listen to someone their age rather than their upstart kids that they raised."
One Lansing woman, whose father has a hearing device but rarely wears it, tries to find the humor in the situation. After Christmas dinner, she packed up some leftovers for her Dad and told him it was for a snack.
"He was horrified," said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous. "He thought I was giving him a snake."