This story was written by Chris Peters and first appeared in The National Foundation for the Deaf e-news October 2017.
For Leah Duley, one of the biggest frustrations of hearing loss is making other people understand.
It can be a battle for the 82-year-old from Carterton, in the Wairarapa, but it’s one she’s winning – with help from Life Unlimited hearing therapist Anne Greatbatch and some clever gadgets.
“The most frustrating thing is people who can hear don’t appreciate the difficulty you have,” she said.
“They look away when they’re talking to you, or say things like ‘I’ve already told you that’. You see someone talking and you ask them to repeat themselves, and they say ‘I wasn’t talking to you’.”
Hearing in groups and with background noise is still difficult, while one-on-one conversations and the phone have posed their challenges, but Leah believes she’s on track to overcoming them.
Leah was born in Masterton, left Wairarapa College to work in an office, did a teaching course in Wellington on commercial subjects, and returned to the Wairarapa to teach shorthand, typing and accounting in schools.
She also took up hockey – she was a Wairarapa and North Island representative and in 1967 attended national trials – as well as playing tennis and indoor basketball.
In 1974 she and Gisborne friend Prue Hawkins moved to Whangarei and bought a dairy, which they turned into a delicatessen near the CBD, and Leah, who had taught herself cake decoration, added that as a business sideline.
After a decade in the food trade Leah was asked by a television rental company to help sort out their books. A six-month job lasted four years then morphed into a receptionist role at a TV servicing company.
It was there she found her hearing had deteriorated to the point where she had to keep asking people to repeat themselves, and she got her first set of hearing aids.
“I’m not sure where that came from – I’ve got three brothers and two sisters and none of them has a hearing loss,” she said.
“I used to do engraving when I was teaching – trophies and presents and things like that – but I never wore hearing protection.
“I also discovered two years ago that I have Paget’s disease of the bone, which I might have had all my life, and the ear, nose and throat surgeon thought that might have affected the structure of the middle ear. We just don’t know.”
And while she was living in Whangarei, Leah, who is a diabetic, discovered she had Parkinson’s disease.
In 1999 Leah retired and after Prue died in 2014, she sold up in Whangarei and returned to the Wairarapa.
“My hearing had continued to deteriorate and sometimes it could lead to embarrassing situations,” she said.
“One time in Whangarei I went to a birthday dinner with some golfing mates and one of them asked me a question and I answered ‘yes, I’m on a diabetic diet’, and they all just erupted in laughter.
“What she had actually asked me was ‘have you retired?’.
“You can feel like a dummy when you can’t hear.”
It was a referral from a Masterton audiologist that put Leah onto hearing therapist Anne Greatbatch and the road to conquering her fears and learning strategies to cope with her hearing loss.
Now on her fourth set of hearing aids, Leah’s biggest struggle was with confidence.
“People would say to me ‘why don’t you go out and join some clubs?’,” she said.
“I love playing cards but in games like 500, with my hearing I’d never be able to hear the calls.
“You can become a bit of a recluse really.
“Anne taught me how to be assertive, to say ‘I’d like to be part of this conversation’, or ‘look at me and speak clearly and slowly’.
“She taught me not to be afraid of my hearing.
“She made me feel that at last somebody’s doing something to help.”
Anne said that as she and Leah worked together, Leah came to realise other people had a part to play in how she communicated.
“She also realised she has a role to play in teaching others how to help her – that you have to ask for engagement,” Anne said.
“Leah was open to new ways to improve her communication.”
Anne also got Leah’s telephone working with her new hearing aids, and it has helped put her back in touch with the world.
The other crucial gadget is a pen microphone Leah gives visitors and speakers to wear so the sound is transmitted directly to her hearing aids.
It’s technology that has made a huge difference to Leah’s life along with captions that allow her to watch TV, a strobe light that flashes when the doorbell rings or the smoke alarm goes off, and the cellular backup to her medical alarm system that will ensure she gets help even if the phone lines are out.
“I still feel isolated a bit, and I don’t feel confident going out and meeting groups of people I don’t know, but things are improving,” Leah said.
“Before, I felt no one was able to help. Now I’m much more confident, and it’s wonderful knowing there’s someone you can call on.”
Learn more about assistive listening devices and alerting equipment.