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Boomers, Birders and Hearing Aids

July 22, 2015

 I happen to be on the leading crest of an incoming wave of aging baby boomers, and my hearing is going, going…away. Behind me are millions more boomers: I wonder how prepared they are for the nuisances of aging which increasingly pester me, or do they still think themselves immortal? One nuisance, important for birders, is hearing loss. Like it or not, ready or not, many of you will get it, so here’s a few comments you may find useful.

Don't try this at home, Kids!(Vimeo - "The Reinvention of Normal" A Liam Saint-Pierre Film)

Not the best hearing aid design available.
(Vimeo – “The Reinvention of Normal” A Liam Saint-Pierre Film)

After about 5 years of progressively losing bird songs & calls – starting with Golden-crowned Kinglet and working my way well down into the range of human speech, I bit the bullet and bought a pair of hearing aids. I’d taken a few years for research and to psychologically prepare myself, and by the time I got them, it was no big deal.

Mine are ‘mini-behind-the-ear’ style, the Pure Caret CE0123 by Siemens. They aren’t cheap. Other manufacturers making the same style may use different descriptive phrases.

Advantages of this model: 15 volume settings, 5 modes, small, perforated plastic ear cups inside the ear canal permit air and sound to pass by the tiny speaker so you don’t have that “plugged-up” feeling, batteries last about 14-22 days; modes are designed for your individual pattern of hearing loss; the aids “talk” to each other, so one aid can select the mode for both ears, while the other aid adjusts volume for both ears.
Hearing Aid_SCR800
Disadvantages: not water-proof, visible by others (if you care) if you have little hair or no hat, not cheap, need daily wax removal, subject to “wind noise,” may increase difficulty of locating direction of sound.

I had the technician create a birding mode for me which really cranks up the volume for high frequencies – but I can’t use it if people are talking or there’s any ambient sound I can’t control (voices, traffic, music, etc.). Crunching through dry leaves is excruciating.

I’m very happy with them and had minimal difficulty adapting to them. It’s very nice to again understand my wife, hear musical overtones, hear TV and Radio without blasting them, and it’s especially rewarding to hear birds again. I didn’t know they were so noisy right outside my bedroom window, the pesky little critters. Warblers are great. Last year a California Towhee lived in our back yard and, pining for a mate, sang nonstop for a couple of months.

Common Questions answered:
How long have you had them? Any problems? I’ve had them about 3 ½ years. I think my hearing continues to diminish slowly.
Recently I concluded that the aids may emit a sound that honeybees (not solitary bees) don’t like – 3 stings in 3 years. Each time they seemed to home in on my ears. I asked if others had this problem: birders hadn’t, beekeepers have. From now on, when I see a honeybee heading my way, off go the aids.

Are they reliable? I’ve had no problems, but others, who may have gotten lemons, reported having problems within a few months.

How is birding with them? Far, far better, for the reasons given above. But there are two problems: wind and direction of sound.

Wind? Strong or gusty wind makes a loud rattly noise and I have to turn them off.

Direction of sound? My hearing loss and increasing tinnitus developed unequally in both ears, causing me to lose the ability to tell direction of sound from side-to-side or up-and-down. This has not returned, possibly because the sound pickups are behind my ears. I can tell that a bird is singing, but not from where. It’s very frustrating.

Cleaning? I brush them each morning before inserting them. Accumulated earwax hardens overnight at room temperature, making it easy to remove. I think my earwax production declined because wax buildup has dropped to nearly nothing. About once a year, when they’ve gotten a bit gunky, I take them to the retailer for a free cleaning and ear cup replacement.

Do they ever fall out? It’s easy to snag the behind-the-ear unit with your hat cord, glasses, etc. However, the plastic cup in the ear canal keeps them from popping out entirely. Once one fell onto a wood floor, with no damage. One birder lost an aid when – onboard a boat – the wind whipped his hat off, the chin cord snagged an aid, and into the water it went. They’ve also gotten damp from rain and humidity but suffered no damaged.

How long can you wear them? Do they irritate your ears? On birding tours, I wear them from bedrise to bedset. Occasionally, when an ear canal feels itchy, I pull out the aid, wiggle my finger in my ear, re-insert the aid and the problem is gone.

Any screeching feedback? My birding hat, always worn, has a 2-3″ brim which sits just above my ears, and reflects sound to the behind-the-ear microphone. At higher volumes, this creates a tinny ‘talking-down-a-metal-pipe’ sound, especially in birding mode. Either I remove the hat, turn down the volume or change the mode. No one has ever said that my aids emitted feedback.

How high in frequency do they go? I may have known at purchase, but no longer; web research made me no wiser. Other than the more distant songbirds, I seem to hear what people around me hear, except those annoying professional bird tour leaders with unbelievable wolfish ears. I recently heard Golden-crowned Kinglets calling, but they were about 30 ft. away.

What are the ‘modes’? 1) Normal conversation, 2) group, 3) tinnitus, 4) birding, 5) “sports.” I use #1 about 90% of the time. #2 is for noisy restaurants or groups. #3 is – for me – “off.” It’s white noise which I cannot hear, and is supposed to help adaptation to tinnitus, which I’ve had for over 35 years and already learned to ignore. #4 Boosts highs tones, greatly enhancing bird song, but can’t be used when people are (or are likely to be) talking, or when crunching over gravel or dry leaves. #5 is a mystery – I couldn’t get the aid retailer to coherently explain what it did, other than being “good for sports events.”

Can you understand group conversations? This never returned to pre-loss levels, but ‘group’ mode works pretty well most of the time. In places with highly sound-reflective walls-ceilings-floors (e.g. many restaurants), and thus a great deal of echoing ambient noise, it can be very difficult. I try to stay away from such places. [I hated those places before I lost my hearing, so no great inconvenience there.] I adjust the volume and try to face the speaker of the moment. Not being embarrassed about hearing loss means not caring if others see me fiddling with my ear.

Are your batteries rechargeable? No. Rechargers seem to start around $40 and go much higher, and a pair of rechargeable batteries at $20 ($14 at Amazon). One birder reported having two chargers die within a six-month period. If a rechargeable aid battery is anything like a rechargeable AA battery, the charge won’t hold as long.

How long do your batteries last? At first I averaged 21 days per pair of #13 non-rechargeable batteries, primarily because I inserted them when evening TV-time arrived. Now I usually wear them all day, and I get 14-16 days before they die. Others report getting 6-7 days per pair, 12 hours per day. Perhaps they have greater hearing loss and need stronger aids which use more juice per minute than mine. At $7 for an 8-pack, my batteries cost about $30/year and are certainly less hassle at possibly a lower cost than rechargables. Aid retailers commonly give you free batteries for a year or two. The batteries have a steep power-loss curve at the end, meaning that I don’t notice the power is diminishing until perhaps a day before they die altogether.

Will insurance cover the cost? Yours might, my HMO coverage didn’t. You’ll need a hearing test and a recommendation for aids from an audiologist before the insurance company will agree to pay. The hearing aid retailer will probably re-test your hearing for “free.” Such test results are necessary for the aid technician to adjust the aid’s internal computer to your hearing loss profile.

Is it possible to have one mode in one aid and a different mode in the second aid? Some people buy (or need) only one aid, so that aid must be able to adjust both volume and mode. With two such aids, it should be possible but that sounds to me like a good way to get a headache.

Telephone mode? I don’t have it: I wasn’t sure it would work with our ancient land lines and cheap cellular phone, it costs a couple of hundred more, and I don’t talk a lot on the phone. I hear phone conversation just fine 95% of the time – when I can’t, it’s not the aids’ fault, but because the other person has their mouth too far from their tiny microphone. They speak up when I ask them to, and I hear fine.

Do you have molded ear cups? No. The retailer gives me little saucer-shaped ones (see photo) for free, which work fine.

What about the SongFinder hearing amplification device for birders? I haven’t tried it. I don’t like the way they look and I wouldn’t want to wear one around the house or at the theater or restaurant. Reportedly they work well in the field; one birder said he loved his, but it cannot be used while wearing hearing aids.

What about TV hearing devices? I haven’t tried any “remote transmission from TV” gizmos. I thought about them, but the aids work fine 98% of the time.

Loud Travel Alarm Clocks? Research led me to Sonic Alert Model SBP100, $26.14 from Amazon. It’s loud, vibrates, can clip to your pillow, and got me up for those pre-dawn risings inevitable on bird trips. Many other options exist.
Alarm Clock_SCR800
Are there any web forums for hearing aid users? I entered “hearing loss chat room” into Google and got 814,000 hits, which seems sufficient to me.

Why did you buy this type (mini-behind-the-ear) rather than another?
1. I wasn’t vain about people seeing my aids, so I wasn’t dead set on the ones that hide completely-in-the-canal.
2. I’ve long had a problem with equalizing pressure in my inner ears, and I didn’t want anything which – by blocking the canal – might exacerbate it. (For reasons unknown to me, my aids seem to have nearly eliminated this annoying condition.) I’d read that in-the-canal aids or anything which projects sound through a hollow tube plug up your ear canal, making your ears feel “stuffy.” My aids have a sound pickup behind the ear; a little wire with a tiny speaker on the end runs into the canal.
3. I wanted to avoid aids which emit loud high-pitched feedback squeals audible to everyone except the wearer.
4. They were expensive – over $4k after the 20% discount they gave to patients of my HMO – but I figured, what the heck – I could afford it and if I didn’t like them, I had 30 days to get my money back.

As the tsunami of aging boomers continues to break, we’re going to be flooded with new products for old people. Hearing aids are no exception: expect continual introduction of new models with new features, and possible price decreases. If you have a few extra bucks lying around, you might invest them in a company that specializes in geezer goodies. I hear it’s a growing market.

Addition questions or information are welcome. If useful and pertinent, I’ll add them to this blog.  [Chuck Almdale]

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