Now that my “Human’s Quest for Meaning” lectures are almost over at All Souls Church, I am moving on, starting by posting some thoughts about old age, inspired by a light-hearted op ed column by Roger Rosenblatt in the October 1 issue of the New York Times. (“Old Age, It’s No Joke.”) It is true that for many octogenarians getting out of a taxi or a comfortable chair requires enormous skill and elaborate planning in advance and that the simple tasks of earlier years are now daunting for us codgers. Yet Mr. Rosenblatt does not deal with the most daunting task for some old people: trying to understand what on Earth other people are saying.
I am now 81 and will turn 82—his age– in exactly six months. I am not a newcomer to hearing loss. I got my first pair of hearing aids in 1997 when I was only 55. I probably inherited this problem from my father, who when he was my age often provided strange or weird answers to simple questions because unlike me, he rarely wore his hearing aids and had no idea what people were saying. It drove my mother crazy. I, on the other hand, have been a devoted and shameless hearing aid user for 25 years. The technology has gotten much better over the years but still has not been able to achieve the Holy Grail of solving the biggest hearing challenge—ambient noise. The hearing aid providers say they have made progress in this area. They haven’t.
Just like canoeists and kayakers who rate rapids by categories from Class 1 to 5 (with Class 5 meaning impossible passage for a canoe), every morning I think about the day’s activities and rate the conditions that I am likely to face that day. A one-on-one conversation in a quiet room is a Class 1. If I have my hearing aids on, no problem, even if the person is occasionally looking in the other direction when speaking. Embry, of course, might disagree, but like a novice canoeist gently paddling down a stream with small ripples and wavelets, I declare that this situation is relatively easy to handle. Two people, when they are talking to each other and to me sometimes are a Class 2, especially if there is low music or ambient noise in the background. Also concerts with good amplification and acoustics fall into Class 2 along with moderate-sized dinner parties. Bottom line: I am fine with Class 1 and can get by pretty well in Class 2 situations. Class 3 is when the situation becomes a bit problematical. This includes lectures, presentations, and sermons (which are not always a loss to miss), unless I am seated at or very near the front. I can catch the gist of what is going on but often not much more. Some movies fall into Class 3 or worse if the acoustics are not good, which would cause them to fall into Class 4 along with plays, large dinner parties and conversations with groups of people where moderate ambient noise or music are present. Conventional phone conversations fall into Class 4, but fortunately with Blue Tooth the sound goes directly into my hearing aids. Class 5, however, is where the problems become insurmountable. And the challenge is there are lots of Class 5 situations, especially for an extrovert like me, who likes to be around people and engage in chit chat, to go to cocktail parties, to gatherings for morning coffee and conversation, and to enjoy eating at a good restaurant. At least I used to. However, a crowded restaurant with low ceilings with hard surfaces on the floor and the ceiling and with occupied tables close together is hopeless. I have no idea what anyone is saying. It is a Class 5 on steroids disaster. And, of course, the main culprit is always ambient noise.
So, what is an old codger like me (or anyone with a serious hearing problem) supposed to do? You can’t just keep on asking people to repeat themselves. If I had a dollar for every time I asked, “Pardon, could you say that again?” I would be, as they say, rich. You have to fake it. So, in situations where I am talking to people in a crowded room with ambient noise in a Class 5 environment, I try to read lips and study facial expressions. If they are smiling and look happy, I nod, smile, and say something like “yes” or “very interesting” or “glad to hear it.” If they suddenly look shocked or horrified, I immediately switch gears, blush, and say something like, “Oh, what I mean is I am very sorry.” Since in superficial conversations, most people usually reply to the question “How are you?” with the answer “Oh, I am doing fine” even if they aren’t doing fine, it usually works. But not always.
You have heard the pejorative term “deaf and dumb.” This is where the “dumb” part comes from. Hearing impaired people like me say dumb things because we have no idea what other persons are saying, do not want to ask them to repeat what they said too many times, and often have no choice other than just a guess. Mostly this works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
This happened to me at my 60th high school reunion in Nashville four years ago, just before Covid arrived. I went to a small, private boy’s school where over the years I have remained close to more than a half dozen classmates. In our class of 50 boys, I would guess more than half showed up with their wives for the main event, which was a cocktail dinner at the elegant home of one of our most successful classmates. The minute I entered the main room where drinks were being served, I knew I was in trouble. It was bedlam. The room was jam-packed with people hugging and laughing and celebrating our survival and our friendships after all these years. The ambient sound was an extreme Class 5. What to do? I did what I always do in situations like this: I faked it. I smiled, hugged, shook hands, and said again and again, “Great to see you, glad you are doing well, terrific news,” that sort of thing; and as the evening wore on, I concluded that I had managed pretty well though I had understood hardly a word that was said.
Two days later, after I got back to Washington, I got a call from one of my best friends whom I have remained very close to over the years and whom I could always count on for his gentle honesty.
“Well,” he said, “Joe, I am afraid I have bad news. You are the talk of the reunion. The word on the street is you have severe dementia. I got this from more than one person that what you said to them made absolutely no sense. Everyone thinks you have lost your mind.” He said he was asked not to mention any names.
“Oh, my goodness!” Then I recalled that some of my typical rosy responses to my fellow alumni had been met with a few shocked expressions and a couple of people just walked away.
Uh oh. Guessed wrong.
Here is how I imagined one of the conversations going:
“Hi, George, great to see you! How are you doing? It has been so many years!”
“Not good, Joe, but it is good to see you too. My wife died of a stoke just a couple of weeks ago and I am at a loss of what to do next.”
“Hey, that’s great news, George, so glad to hear it!”
I had at least two or three of those conversations where I suspected that my guess had been wrong, judging by the expressions on their faces. But what to do? The room was so noisy that I could not have heard their story if I had asked them to repeat it.
“Deaf and dumb,” that is me, but thankfully no dementia though some might have different views on that too.
“Old age, it’s no joke,” says Roger Rosenblatt in the New York Times. How right he is!