What (Did You Say)?

Too often, I find myself saying “What?” in conversations because I do not understand something that the other person has just said. People just don’t speak up the way they used to. I have become more aware of this reluctance in others to speak clearly as I have gotten older. It has even occurred to me that perhaps they are not reluctant to speak up, but instead, they are testing me. They speak softer and more quietly, gradually lowering the volume, trying to find the sweet spot at which their voice becomes incomprehensible to me. I don’t know why they do this. Maybe it amuses them.

I have also noticed that they are doing this now on television. The commercials are plenty loud enough, and so it is obvious that they have the technology to transmit dialog at a comfortable volume and with sufficient clarity that actual words can be detected from my location across the room. Fortunately, adjustments can be made to counteract the television transmission subterfuge. One can turn up the volume on the TV set and overcome the broadcasters’ attempts to muffle the dialog and to mask it by means of background music or sound effects.

Another great invention is closed-captioning. I use that a lot when watching television. Unfortunately, though, the captions are not always accurate. Sometimes they show words that are completely wrong. I know this because I can still hear the spoken dialog a lot of the time, despite the masking and muffling. Sometimes, whole strings of words are left out of the closed captions. Also, the captions are typically delayed and lag behind the sound and action taking place on the screen. The technology of closed-captioning is not perfect—perhaps by design—and it can be very confusing if you are trying to follow the story by relying on the captions alone.

Nevertheless, volume control and closed-captioning are useful tools that make it possible to watch television and actually understand what is being said most of the time. I miss having these tools whenever I converse with a person who is reluctant to speak up or who may be testing me.

Of course, being able to hear the dialog on television does not improve the quality of the dialog itself. The dialog in many TV dramas—particularly American TV dramas—is typically insipid and illogical and characterized by a dearth of wit and eloquence. It is really no wonder that broadcasters use techniques to muffle and distort such lame dialog to render it indistinguishable from the background noise.

My need to say “What?” is most acute when the conversation is taking place in a busy place where a lot of people are talking. This is especially noticeable in certain restaurants that seem to be designed and furnished in such a way that the ambient babble from people chatting away at other tables distracts from my enjoyment of dining and conversing with my companions at my table. The rudeness of others in this regard has become commonplace, but that is no excuse for bad restaurant design. Restaurants with bad acoustics are symptomatic of the general decline in civil society that has occurred in recent years. I am old enough to remember when we were a kinder, gentler and more considerate people, who knew how to speak up.

I realize that I cannot change the uncivil habits of other people, but if I at least want to understand them better, we do, in fact, have the technology—in the form of hearing aids. I have resisted having to resort to using hearing aids—in part, because I have remained optimistic that those closest to me will learn to enunciate. My resistance is largely due to my perception that hearing aids are for old men. Although I am now retired, I do not think of myself as an old person. Wearing hearing aids would be incongruous with my self-image as a somewhat mature, but certainly not old, person.

I know, intellectually, that having hearing aids is not something that only old people do. Hearing loss can occur at any age or even from birth. Obviously, a child who wears hearing aids would never be labeled as an old person. Nevertheless, on an emotional level, I would feel more elderly and infirm if I start wearing hearing aids. The use of technology to hear better might improve my quality of life. Nevertheless, there is something artificial about it that is disturbing. When I was a younger man, I did not need to rely on supplemental devices to maintain a good quality of life. Wearing hearing aids—and being seen to wear them—would make my oldness that much more apparent.

Becoming old is inevitable the longer one lives. We have options about achieving a desirable quality of life, even by artificial means.

Having pretty much accepted my situation as regards the aging process, I have decided to explore the hearing aid option. I have had my hearing tested. Actually, I have had my hearing tested four or five times since 2004. Most recently, I had my hearing tested by two different professionals. All of these tests confirmed that I have a mild hearing loss. Mine is a deficit in the higher frequency range (2,000 Hz and above). I also have tinnitus (a constant high-pitched, low-volume squeal in both ears), otherwise known as “ringing in the ears.” It is not unusual. Tinnitus seems to be associated with hearing loss, particularly with a high-frequency hearing loss.

My quality of life would be improved by hearing aids if, when I wear them, I can detect an improvement in any of the following:

  • Ability to understand when someone is talking to me
  • Ability to distinguish high-frequency, sound-alike consonants such as “f” and “s”
  • Ability to understand conversations in settings where a lot of people are speaking in the background
  • Ability to understand dialog on television at lower volume, without the use of closed-captions
  • Ability to “tune out” my tinnitus

After my recent hearing tests, I tried out two different hearing aids from different manufacturers. Each demonstrator-model hearing aid was similar in design to the other, but the per-pair price was $8,000 for one brand and $1,900 for the other.

Both models were digital, programmable hearing aids with a microphone part behind the ear and a small, transparent tube leading from the behind-the-ear unit to a tiny receiver placed inside the ear canal. For both demonstrations, the hearing aids were programmed to match my particular audiogram.

With both demo-hearing aid pairs, the immediate sensation was that I was hearing amplified (as opposed to “natural”) sound. This sensation was most noticeable in hearing my own voice. This reaction is apparently typical of new hearing-aid users, and consequently, the devices are initially set to the low end—if not the lowest—of volume levels. After one’s brain gets used to having sounds amplified by hearing aids, I was told, the hearing aids are commonly adjusted to provide a little more amplification (to better compensate for those frequencies where the hearing loss exists).

Between the two demo-models that I tried, I could not detect any difference. One pair of devices was not noticeably better than the other. It is very difficult to make a meaningful comparison however. The settings in which each demonstration took place were quite different from each other. I wore each pair of demo-hearing aids for only ten or fifteen minutes.

Although I felt that I could hear better with the hearing aids than without them, it was hard to separate what I was actually hearing from what I thought I should be hearing. I mean, they are hearing aids, right? Hearing aids should aid hearing. In a fifteen-minute demonstration, there was no way for me to decide whether one brand and model of hearing aid was better than the other on the basis of durability, battery life and the quality of the internal electronic and software components.

I do not have the patience or inclination to demo other hearing aids from other vendors or to take any more hearing tests. Because I found no obvious differences in performance between the two models that I tried, I could pick either one.

For me, the bigger decision was deciding between having hearing aids or not having hearing aids. In some respects, however, that was an easier decision than choosing between two hearing aid models that seemed to perform equally well.

I have made the big decision. I have decided to get hearing aids. I am on the other side of that particular tipping point, but that does not mean that I will not have second thoughts about it later. Having hearing aids and actually wearing them on a regular, daily basis are two different things. In spite of my emotional reservations about looking older than I feel I am, I will wear them. I expect that it will take a few months to see how my brain reacts to having little amplifiers riding behind my ears. It will take some persistent use of the hearing aids before I can decide whether or not they are making my quality of life any better. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that other people will learn to speak up and stop testing me.

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The Right Time

Did I retire at the right time?  It has been just over a year now since the date of my retirement.  I have seldom found myself thinking about whether I should have retired when I did.  I suppose the fact that I do not find myself plagued by the question implies the answer.  If I am not consumed with regret about retiring, it must not have been the wrong time to retire.

I am among those who have been fortunate to have a choice in the matter.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, I was able to choose to retire.  I was not forced out of my job because of a physical or medical condition that would have prevented me from doing the work.  I did not have to leave my job due to the economy or downsizing.  I could have continued working in my job for another five or ten years, perhaps.  At the same time, I felt enough confidence in my financial position that it was not necessary for me to remain at my job for the sake of increasing the size of my retirement nest-egg.

Whether retirement happened at the right time would be a different kind of question if I had had no choice about when it was going to happen.  Being able to choose whether to retire puts the focus of the right-time question on the choice and not so much on external circumstances.

But, first things first.  Before deciding when to retire, I had to decide whether to retire.  Two or three years before I retired, I accepted the concept of retirement.  I do not remember when this happened. The timing is not significant—whether it was two years more or less is not important.  What matters is that at some point, I began to think about retirement as a real option for me rather than an abstract state of being that happened to other people.  I began to conceive of retirement as a period of life when employment—for the purpose of earning a living—would no longer be a necessity.

Retirement is not the same as unemployment, which is not having a job when one desperately wants one.  (I know about unemployment, having lived through that experience for a period of time.)  Nor does retirement mean never working again.  Getting paid for doing work does not necessarily disqualify a person from being “really retired.” Paid work during retirement, however, is not about the money, although extra income is always welcome.  Work, like anything else that I choose to do as a retired person, is about enjoyment of life.  In retirement, the living has already been earned.

When I realized that I could conceive of myself becoming a retired person, I started thinking about when I could make that happen. The decision to retire, it seems to me, is a two-step process: first, you have to accept the concept of your own retirement; second, you have to select a retirement date.  The date may change, but ultimately you commit to a retirement date and follow through.

Selecting a retirement date and sticking to it can be complicated.  I enjoyed my job, and I was always interested in doing it well and finishing what I started.  Part of job satisfaction, for me, was completing the assignment, seeing things through to the end, taking care of loose ends.  My job entailed multiple assignments, each at different stages of completion at any one time.  There was hardly any possibility that a time would come when all assignments would be finished before a new one started.  Even if a date of “completing my work” were possible, predicting when it would occur was not.  I could not select a retirement date based on when my job would be done.

I considered several other factors in selecting my retirement date.  I wanted to give my employer a lot of lead time.  At first, I told my employer that I was thinking about retirement in about two years.  That two-year window slid forward a bit, and so my employer’s advance notice was actually more than three years before my final retirement date. In deciding when to retire, it was important to me to give my employer the opportunity to do some transition planning—ideally, to hire a replacement while I was still around to provide training and mentorship.

Another factor was my age.  When I passed age 60 by a few months, I had outlived my father.  Fortunately, my mother lived into her 80s, so any genetic disposition that I may have toward an early demise is tempered somewhat by the maternal contribution to the mix.  Nevertheless, I am aware of the brevity of life.  If I were going to enjoy the status of retirement for a period of more than a few years, then I could not delay too long in selecting a retirement date.

An additional significant factor was one that I could not predict two years out.  The character of my workplace began to change in subtle ways.  Due to retirements (and one shocking early death), my colleagues—the people that shared my history and experience on the job—began to disappear.  Management changed.  Institutional knowledge eroded.  Experience seemed to lose value day by day.  Progress was not always for the better.  There was a gradual deterioration of the work culture. The decline and fall of my workplace made it easier for me to stick with my final retirement date.  Easier, but in a sad way.

Money is always a factor. In deciding when to retire, I had to consider whether I could afford to become a retired person. If I gave up my income from work, would my wife and I have the financial resources necessary to enjoy retirement together? For us, the question has no certain answer, because we are not excessively wealthy and we do not know what unexpected costs the future might bring. Nevertheless, we could count on retirement income from defined-benefit pension plans. Our generation may be the last to have this kind of pension, and so we feel fortunate. It was a calculated financial risk for me to retire when I did.

I weighed these and other factors and then gave my employer a firm six-month final notice of my retirement date.  I do not remember having any second thoughts during those last six months of work.  In the year since my retirement began, I have not suffered from retiree’s remorse, and I have lost no sleep regretting my decision to retire.  So far, so good.  It was the right time.

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