Sunday is Mother’s Day. I miss my mom. But I especially miss all the things I didn’t hear her say.
In her 80s, my mother’s mind and body succumbed to aging. She developed dementia, she had frequent falls and she often needed a wheelchair. But her hearing remained acute. Mine did not.
After my father died, when Mom was 85, she wanted to stay in the house they’d lived in together. It was far away from any of her children, and she had 24-hour-a-day nurses’ aides. Despite this attention, she often fell or had other physical issues that would send her to the hospital, then into rehab to recover, then home again with an aide, only to fall or suffer heart problems or infections once again, and start the cycle over.
Eventually, against her wishes, my siblings and I decided she would be better in the long-term nursing care facility at the community where they lived. She ended up thriving there.
But while she was still living at home, my hearing was a significant obstacle. It was difficult for me to hear her on the phone — and frustrating for us both — so I visited as often as I could. Even when I visited her, though, her soft voice and increasing dementia made it hard for me to understand her. My hearing loss also created some potentially dangerous situations. If I had to call her doctor or even 911, I couldn’t hear their responses. I’d hand the phone to my mother to listen for me and hope she was correctly repeating whatever the doctor said. I didn’t know about captioned phones then, or I’d surely have ordered one. If Text 911 had existed, that would have removed another barrier to communication.
Once she was in the nursing facility, there were fewer crises. But as she became less clear mentally, and as her voice weakened, I not only couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I was never sure she was saying what I thought she was saying. It’s hard enough for a fully hearing person to converse with someone with dementia. Imagine what it’s like when you aren’t sure you’ve understood correctly.
My mother died in 2014. Every mother’s Day I think about all that I missed in those last years of her life. Despite hearing aids and a cochlear implant, and hearing-assistive devices galore, my hearing and her dementia still created an enormous gap. The only way across it was with smiles and hugs and just being there — for her and for me.
Most people’s hearing problems are not as severe as mine. But if you’re having trouble hearing an elderly parent with a whispery voice — or if the parent is having trouble hearing you — don’t let that happen. If you are not ready for hearing aids, buy yourself a handheld device such as a pocket talker.
But whatever solution you come up with, don’t let those words be lost forever.
(A version of this post was first published in 2015 in AARP online.)
Photo courtesy of Katherine Bouton
For more about hearing health, my book “Smart Hearing.” will tell you everything I know about hearing loss, hearing aids, and hearing health.
You can get it online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in paperback or ebook for Kindle or Nook. You can also ask your library or favorite independent bookstore to order it.