If you had only 5 minutes to make a difference in the life of a stranger, how would you use it?
I asked this question in an article a few years ago and in this insane time of masks and distancing, I’m posing the question again.
It’s a chance meeting – perhaps standing in line, six feet apart, to get into the grocery or wine store. The person behind you notices your hearing aid or cochlear implant sound processor beside your face mask and shyly asks if it’s working for you. Or perhaps, at checkout, the senior fellow in front of you is visibly struggling to communicate with the clerk behind the plexiglass who doesn’t know how to express himself any better. Briefly, the other customer glances at you, his face a mask of frustration.
Here are two strangers who, briefly and without even knowing what they are asking, look for help from another stranger. Discussion of their hearing loss is usually kept within the family, but it’s clear to them that you might have information that can help. Would you say something – or maintain your six feet?
A few years ago, I had that fleeting chance. At a highway rest stop on our journey across the northern US in our new RV, a stranger and I were both washing our hands in the ladies’ room. She was with a large bus group that had stopped briefly for a few minutes.
I can’t remember exactly what she said above the roar of the hand dryer, but it was clear that she used a hearing aid which she despised and was very frustrated about her hearing. As an advocate, this was an opportunity for me do what I do – preach the Good Life with Hearing Loss gospel.
But the bus was about to leave – how to condense a lifetime of learning to live with hearing loss into a few seconds? Did I try – or did I just mutter something sympathetic-but-useless, “Yes, I know what you mean.”
I honestly can’t remember. I would love to think that I gave her some sort of useful advice. “I love my hearing aid. But I’ve also learned other stuff that help me communicate better. And it started when I met other people with hearing loss who showed me there’s a better way. Here, let me give you the website of HLAA.”
But I didn’t – the bus was honking its imminent departure. She left.
These days, I’m not so slow to take advantage of similar opportunities. I don’t walk around spouting, “If anybody here has hearing loss and wants information on how to make friends with your hearing aids, I’m your girl!” But like many people who have learned to live well with hearing loss, I’m happy to talk about hearing loss with you if you ask. (That’s a bit of an understatement; I could easily talk hearing loss 24/7 with anybody.)
Most people who have hearing loss see themselves as being alone in a ‘hearing’ world of friends, family and everybody else. Even if they know other hearing aid users, they don’t talk about it, much. They keep their frustrations to themselves, figuring it’s just one of those life-lemons.
But imagine having a hearing loss friend. You understand each other. You share ideas and you commiserate over the challenge of getting other people to understand your communication problems.
And you laugh together, because hearing loss is a funny story gold mine. If people in your ‘hearing’ world make jokes about how you misheard something or gave an inappropriate answer at the wrong time on a completely different subject – your feelings might be hurt, and you may even get angry to cover your embarrassment.
But if your hearing loss friend made the same joke about one of your mis-hears, you would laugh. And then you’d go them one better, by telling a story about how they agreed to something, but they weren’t quite sure what! And these stories are funny, because they are universal, part of the hearing loss life.
If you don’t have a hearing loss friend, get one. Maybe it will be that person in your yoga class, who also uses a hearing aid. Ask them to join you for a coffee, where you sit a few feet apart and swap hearing horror stories.
It’s a start. And you will have changed someone’s life in a small, but important, way.
Photo: Jennifer Thorpe and Gael Hannan