February 3, 2023, by Helen Henshaw
Hearing aids and beyond…
I wrote a few months ago about my initial acceptance of having hearing loss and the experience of acquiring hearing aids (Tom Dening: Hearing aids and cognitive impairment – Challenging Stigma and Promoting Personhood (lancs.ac.uk)). Since then, things have moved on somewhat, causing me to reflect on what is available to help people optimise their hearing.
The first thing that became apparent to me was that I needed a new phone. The old one had been OK when it was new but it had gradually lost functionality, e.g. it could no longer connect to the internet or access email, and the growing world of apps had completely passed by the poor old thing. It was essentially just a phone that could take pictures. It had to go. Getting a proper smartphone brought me in touch with probably most of the population. In particular, I was interested in apps that might support hearing. The most useful one is the manufacturer’s own app, as this contains information about battery life and also measures your average daily wearing time. As I like a challenge, I have been finding ways to increase this time and have added about an hour and a half by sometimes wearing the hearing aids in bed or inserting them if I wake up early, which quite commonly occurs.
Scouting around online made me aware of some devices that looked useful. The first of these was a TV connector, which you can buy online from various hearing care suppliers. I was delighted to realise that if, as a person with hearing loss, you are buying it for yourself, then it is VAT exempt. The device turned out to be about half the size that it looked online (about 6mm square), and it is very light in weight too. Two cables, one into the mains and the other into TV audio, and once you have introduced it to the hearing aids it connects automatically when you are in range. This makes it simpler than the average Bluetooth as you don’t have to select anything. The other difference is that it allows normal audio at the same time, so someone else can watch TV with you, and you can both select your own volume independently. This saves a lot of debate, certainly in our household. If you leave the room, you eventually get a little notificatory ping in your hearing aids when you get out of range. I have ordered a second connector for our other TV.
The more complicated device I came across is called Roger. I am not trying to do product placement here. I wondered whether to give Roger a pseudonym, like Nigel, but decided that may simply be confusing, so Roger it is. Roger is essentially a wireless microphone system. There seem to be three types of Roger for different types of use. What looks like the simplest looks much like a microphone and you can wear it yourself, get someone else to wear it, or put it on the table in front of you. The complicated version is a set of wireless microphone devices, probably sufficient to bug a whole room, or least a conference table. It’s available from MI6’s online store. I’m kidding.
The intermediate version of Roger is a single device containing an array of three mics arranged so that in effect they can receive from six directions, housed in a small circular casing. It is about the size of a biscuit and at home we sometimes refer to it as the Macaroon. To acquire one of these, I think, requires a professional consultation. That is as well, since I definitely wanted to talk to someone about whether it might be helpful prior to paying the eye-watering sum. So, I consulted, the device was ordered, and two weeks later I had a new piece of kit to experiment with. So far, it is early days, but I have tried using Roger in a café, with a passenger in my car, in my clinics, in one-to-one meetings, and in groups of up to five people. I’m yet to get a dinner invitation but I’m hopeful.
First of all, the device is great. You have to have it fairly close to the person to whom you are listening, within a metre or two is ideal. Otherwise it doesn’t pick up. In contrast, as long as you are in eyeline, you can be some way distant. It gives very clear sound into the hearing aids. While the aids have definitely helped a lot with conversations, Roger augments this further, which I have found very useful. You can adjust the volume through your hearing aids and the mic direction through Roger itself.
Second is that either people simply don’t notice it or they are very polite. I generally just pop the device on the table and proceed. If anyone asks, I explain that I am not recording them. And of course, as they can’t hear anything extra, it is not obtrusive to them. When I do explain what it is, people think it is cool, so it’s an interesting move from the slight stigma of hearing aids to having trendy wireless mics on the desk. Third, Roger also plugs into the audio sockets of equipment, which has meant that some kit, like my ageing CD player, that don’t connect well to Bluetooth, can be used with Roger to produce a great sound for me.
There’s a useful Roger app that has training videos and guides and I am proud that I am now at the level 7 skill level. Maybe I’ll get a certificate? In my curious way, I have also been in dialogue with the app producers.
Overall, the last few months have been fascinating and have transformed my outlook on hearing loss and hearing support systems. I think there’s still a lot more for me to learn, but it’s definitely been fun so far.
Professor of Dementia Research, Mental Health & Clinical Neurosciences, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham
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