At first I pushed the realisation away, refusing to believe that my hearing was deteriorating.
It started eight years ago, gradually. First, watching TV became a struggle. I’d turn up the volume until, in time, my poor husband (younger than I!) was deafened.
At the theatre, I’d strain to hear — sometimes struggling to follow an unfamiliar play because I would miss parts of the dialogue.
At a party, where the background noise was loud, I just nodded and pretended to hear. I felt too embarrassed to keep saying ‘I’m sorry?’ or ‘Say again?’. Who knows what mistakes I might have made.
Back at home, whenever I missed something, my husband said I would stubbornly point out that he has a very soft voice.
Yes, it’s called denial. It was tough to acknowledge my hearing loss because, like many people. I associated the problem with being old — and I didn’t feel old at all.
I had an image of myself as a young, confident, 60-something woman with a successful career and responsibilities. I still felt (or should I say ‘feel’) glamorous, and a hearing aid didn’t fit this image.
So for years I went on making excuses and pretending I didn’t need help.
But, as a journalist, it’s my job to engage with people, and to listen. What’s more, I have to promote my books — which means speaking in public, and answering questions.
Phone calls need to be made, but I started to find it hard to hear what colleagues were saying.
But instead of acknowledging the issue, I started to keep phone conversations to a minimum and used email instead.
At last I saw the irony. As the Daily Mail’s advice columnist, I read problem letters every day.
I’m employed to give advice and encourage my readers to take action and find solutions.
Yet here I was, with a condition which affected all aspects of my life, refusing to come clean and admit to myself that I needed help.
There’s an old Latin saying which asks: ‘Who guards the guards themselves?’ In my case it should be re-framed as: ‘Who gives advice to the advice columnist?’
One day in 2011, I was standing outside our farmhouse near Bath with my husband. It was a very beautiful day. ‘Listen to that!’ he said. ‘I think it’s a buzzard’.
But I could hear nothing. No glorious wild sound of a bird of prey, calling high in the blue sky, disturbed my muffled ears.
When I confessed, my husband looked slightly shocked. It was then I realised I had to put this right.
At the time, grandchildren were expected (in fact, my first two were born in 2012) and I would want to hear their little voices, wouldn’t I?
Telling myself that wearing a hearing aid would be no different from wearing contact lenses, I at last vowed to act.
Hearing loss is sometimes joked about, but it’s a serious issue. A recent U.S. study connected impaired hearing to the onset of depression.
James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging, pointed out that ‘people with hearing loss, especially those who don’t use hearing aids, find it more difficult to communicate with other people, whether in family situations, social gatherings or at work’.
It could be a short step from having that problem to feeling very isolated.
After all, if you avoid people because you are embarrassed or shamed not to be able to hear them, they may (in time) turn away from you too.
My first action was to visit the GP and be referred to my local NHS hearing centre.
I was immensely pleased to have made the first step, but unfortunately it was to lead nowhere.
It took ages — more than a month — for an appointment to arrive in the post, and the date they gave was about six weeks ahead.
But then, the day before my appointment, the centre phoned to say they would have to postpone due to unexpected staff shortages, so could we make another one? Already, we were looking a couple of months ahead.
So I was back to square one — which was nowhere. Frustrated, but fatalistic, I let things slide once again.
Believe me, I don’t blame the NHS for the blip. Nevertheless, it’s been pointed out that NHS rationing of hearing aids is likely to be fuelling the epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease.
The warning follows research showing that the risk of dementia rockets as hearing fades.
The most deaf are five times more likely to develop the disease, and even mild hearing loss seems to have an effect.
Charities and medical staff have said that doctors must stop thinking of hearing loss as being inconsequential and start treating it – and that it’s imperative that the NHS stops rationing hearing aids.
Shockingly, it emerged last October that cash-strapped health boards have stopped offering the devices to those with mild hearing loss for the first time since the NHS was formed — advising patients to lip read instead.
Other patients have been given only one hearing aid, despite needing two. Overall, just one third of the six million Britons who could benefit from hearing aids have them.
My decision to take care of myself was sensible — and serendipity intervened. I was driving through Bath when I saw a modest sign on a shop. It said ‘Hidden Hearing’ — and I thought ruefully, ‘Yes, my poor old hearing is pretty hidden!’
The next day I saw an advertisement in a magazine for the same High Street chain of hearing centres, so rang and made an appointment within the week. Just like that.
This was two and a half years ago — a very long time after I first started to turn up the TV volume.
The test revealed that my hearing loss was more severe than I’d imagined, which left me shocked.
I have since learned that because hearing loss is so gradual, a person with symptoms often doesn’t realise the severity and doesn’t realise what sounds they are missing.
My audiologist spent time taking me through the different options available and I eventually settled on a pair of Orticon Intiga.
At first I rather reeled at the cost — which was £4,000.
On the other hand, I was buying a pair of exquisitely tiny computers that would tuck behind my ears, coloured to match my hair, with the part that went inside my ears pretty well invisible.
You can’t put a price on your senses. Hearing is fundamental to living, so I told myself it was a purchase worth making, especially if I considered it in terms of so much per day for at least six years.
At first I forgot to use them. I suppose I was still resisting the idea, since the thought of putting something inside your ear isn’t natural.
In fact, I’ve worn contact lenses since I was 20 and it’s actually infinitely easier to get used to a hearing aid.
Initially, though, I found the batteries fiddly and worried I was going to break the delicate little appliances.
However with some perseverance I managed to adapt and now the benefits are incredible. No more muffled living.
I vividly remember walking into my garden and hearing bird song for the first time. It was wonderful.
I now wear the hearing aids every day, and I tell people about them all the time because it’s so important to be open and counter any stigma.
I was surprised to find male acquaintances display vanity, telling me it was easier for me because the hearing aids couldn’t be seen whereas with short hair….
My advice? Grow slightly longer hair around the ears if it bothers you that much but honestly, does it really matter?
We all need to look after ourselves and be honest about what we need to do to improve our quality of life.
I haven’t just made my hearing better, I’ve improved my social life (since parties are less of a strain), family and working life.
Who wouldn’t want to hear a grandchild’s sweet little mumbling? Or every note of a favourite song?
A life without sound can be lonely. Hearing loss shouldn’t be looked at as an age-related condition because (as my hearing specialist told me) young people can have the problem too.
Even though I’m entirely satisfied with the hearing aids I invested in nearly three years ago, at the moment I’m just trialling an upgrade, the Oticon Opn, which is even more state of the art.
For example, the other night in the theatre I used a small hand control to improve the clarity of the actors.
What a revelation it was — first, to hear the sound change and second to have the power to control the technology.
I’d urge anyone who is worried about their hearing to seek help straight away. Whether you take the NHS path or seek out a High Street provider is a choice; what matters is to take action.
The longer you wait the more your hearing deteriorates and the harder it is adapt to technology.
And just think of all the lovely conversation and glorious birdsong you might be missing.