Much of what I believe about the art of getting older can be summarized in my relationship with my Signia CROS hearing aids. They are a perfect metaphor for what it means to age gracefully.

I started having hearing problems at the young age of 53, 5 or 6 years ago, a  good one year after my wife started shouting at me in earnest. My diagnosis wasn’t officially confirmed until I went to the doctor’s office for some drop-to-your-knees vertigo I was having. The kind where the room spins around for 24 hours straight, and not in the good kind of way I remember from college.

A doctor confirmed that I had Meniere’s Disease, an imbalance in my right inner ear. It not only caused vertigo, tinnitus, and an equilibrium imbalance but hearing loss. Fortunately, I still had a working left ear.

Fast forward to 11 months later, when an MRI revealed a tumor sitting next to my left ear. Since the tumor was benign, the doctors were going to leave it alone and see what happened. Play it by ear (as I never get tired of saying). They didn’t want to risk a surgery that might damage the hearing even more, especially with the other ear already compromised.

Unfortunately, the tumor started growing faster and inching closer to my brain. They had no choice but to remove it. While the surgery was successful, in the process, I lost 90% of my hearing in that ear, along with my dream of becoming a tightrope walker.

I can still remember waking up in intensive care and thinking the whole hospital was whispering, and knowing that my relationship with sound would never be the same. I was also praying that they would heavily sedate me before they pulled out my catheter, but that’s another story.

Once the inflammation in my brain settled, I could hear a bit better in my good ear.  The fact is, I don’t have to always wear my hearing aids, like for those times when my wife needs help removing a dead animal outside of our house. I'll never hear those words.

You’d be surprised at how much you can understand with 50% hearing in one ear. You simply have to pay attention, lean in, and look people in the eye. Sound advice for us all. The fact is, there are all sorts of lessons about hearing which I have had to learn, and I am still learning today, all of which I hope is making me a better listener than I was before.

But, let me tell you, I can hear so much better with my Signia CROS hearing aids. The technology is amazing. Someone can talk into my George Bailey left ear, and it wirelessly sends the sound to my better hearing right ear. Of course, it also means I never know where the sound is coming from, so you might see me spinning around a lot. I’m good for a laugh that way. But, I can put up with that, because these Signia CROS hearing aids are lifesavers.  And, yes, I know I have mentioned them by name three times already, mainly because I am secretly hoping that somehow they will make me their new spokesperson. I have just the right touch of grey on my temples to suit their demographic.

So by all means, if you happen to see me out in the world, come on up and say hello. I can hear you fine. Unless we’re in a crowded restaurant or at a loud party, then I’ll just give you a fake smile. Don't worry; I’ll laugh at all your jokes. You’ll think you’re really funny, too. You might even walk away thinking what a great audience I am. “I’ve got to talk to Bill more often.” Of course, it’s just as likely that I laughed at your grandmother getting hit by an ice cream truck, in which case, I apologize in advance.

Now, when it comes to poor hearing, I’m not alone. Far from it. My audiologist, the gifted Spencer Tjiegen, tells me that 26.7 million people over age 50 have a hearing impairment, and only 1 in 7, a meager 14%, use a hearing aid. And when you get to 70, that number only increases to 1 in 3. Across all ages, about 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.

I don’t know about you, but I think those are crazy statistics. I can’t tell you how many people I personally know who say they’re hard of hearing, and yet do nothing about it. I’d give you the statistics, but it would only point out how few people I know…and then you’d just feel sorry for me.

I’m not a shrink, but Spencer is, or at least he plays one in his audiologist’s office. He says outside of the cost issue, the reasons people don’t get hearing aids mostly comes down to vanity, ego, or laziness (which sums up the neglect of our physical and emotional health in a nutshell). Surprisingly, price was not the biggest reason.

Spencer says he has 90-year-olds who are worried about their looks. I say if you’re 90, you should do whatever you can to get someone to look at you. Dangle a skull bone from your hearing aids. Paint them pink.

Bottom line, we don’t always do the things that will make our lives better. It’s too much work to move past the ego and come to the point of acceptance where we realize that we could use a little help in our lives. And at one time or another, we can all use a little help. A point in the right direction. A hand to lift us up.

Unfortunately, we don’t always ask for it. And it’s not just because we don’t want to put people out. We don’t want to be seen as weak, needy, or even worse, imperfect. In short, we don’t want to reveal who we really are.

Well, that ends today! Oxygen Buzz is hereby decreeing that the days of stoicism and perfectionism are over. We don’t have to go it alone anymore. It’s time to be kind to ourselves again. It’s time to put on our symbolic—or not so symbolic—hearing aids and learn how to ask for help.

And we can begin by embracing the fact that our bodies are not what they once were.  And sometimes there is nothing we can do about it. But, sometimes we can do a lot, or we can do a little that feels like a lot, or enough to make a difference in the quality of our lives. Personally, my hearing aids are game-changers for which I will be forever grateful.

What is your game-changer?

And we’re not just talking about hearing anymore. We’re talking about poor eyesight, bum hips, bad hearts, slower reflexes, a decline in memory. We’re talking about loneliness, depression, and discontent. We’re talking about anything in our lives where we need a little help. Directions to the closest Starbucks. Someone to bring soup when we’re sick. A shoulder to lean on.

And let’s be clear, asking for help is not asking someone to carry our load or take away our experiences and challenges. We’re not aiming to dump. Nobody can or should support us in that way. We’re talking about accepting help that allows us to stretch, grow, and experience the fullness of life in the best way we can at any given moment. This is an empowering act of creativity. It’s also at the core of artful living…no matter the age.

If you need help, get help.

Get your hearing checked. See your optometrist. Find a therapist, a trainer, a nutritionist. Join a drum circle. A tattoo support group. And while you’re at it, seek out family and friends (just make sure they’re the right family and friends). Let someone else do the dishes, make the meal, throw the party. You don’t have to go through life alone. Help is everywhere.

And don’t let anyone (including yourself) try to tell you that asking for help is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it’s a sign of vulnerability, which takes courage and strength. In fact, to be alive is to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable is to open your heart.

As the novelist, Haruki Murakami once said, “What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”

Or as Paulo Coelho says, “The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.”

It’s called being human—warts and all. Especially warts. I didn’t have this vulnerability when I was 21, but I’m getting it now…slowly…and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even youth. Or my hearing.

Stay tuned for next week’s The Elephant in the Room Experiment: Mastering the Art of Hearing. A Guide for the Hearing Impaired (In All of Us)

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