Ray and Lorna Uken at home in Yankton, S.D.
For my father’s 85th birthday last year, I wanted to surprise him with a phone call. He rarely speaks on the phone because of his hearing loss, but I had convinced myself that his birthday would be different.
I had planned this for weeks. I would call him at exactly 11:45 a.m. I knew he would be nestled in his favorite easy chair waiting for the noon news, a mere arm’s length from my parents’ telephone in Yankton, S.D.
My heart was pounding as I heard their phone ringing. One ring. Two rings.
My mom answered. “Is Dad there?” I asked.
“It’s for you,” she told my dad as she handed him the phone.
“Oh, you just talk,” I could hear him say. “Who is it? I can’t hear.”
“It’s Cindy,” Mom said. “She wants to wish you a happy birthday.”
Begrudgingly he cradled the receiver.
“Hello,” he said.
“Happy birthday, Dad,” I said cheerily.
“OK, thanks,” he said.
“Do you have big plans today?” I asked.
“Oh, pretty good,” he said, thinking I had asked him how he was doing.
“No,” I said. “Do you have big plans?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s pretty nice here today,” he said.
It was clear he simply could not hear what I was saying but was bravely trying to carry on a conversation.
“Here,” I could hear him say to my mother. “You take this. I can’t hear.”
I heard the frustration in his voice. I had a lump in my throat. I cut the call short and wept.
A hearing loss that can’t be helped
I felt bad because he was robbed of a phone conversation on his birthday, and I cried because I felt incredibly selfish. I wanted him to hear. For that one special day, I wanted him to be able hear me on the phone. In the end, I frustrated him.
Dad has lived with a significant hearing loss for decades. And that loss has grown more profound over the years.
While hearing aids can be helpful for most people with hearing loss, there are some for whom hearing aids either do not help or help insufficiently, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.
Dad is one of those people.
Twice he has tried getting fit for hearing aids, but both times has failed. His hearing loss stems from a car accident in December 1959 that left him with a severe head concussion and a broken back. He was just 28.
From the time I was a little girl, I can recall him talking about how the wind whistling in his ears hurt. He farmed, and the deafening sounds of tractors and heavy machinery exacerbated the problem.
As I grew older, his hearing loss progressed. He would often say, “Speak up,” or “Quit your mumbling.” It led to more than one father-daughter argument. He thought I mumbled and was being a smart-aleck teenager. I thought I was talking in a normal speaking voice. I never understood why he got so angry.
I do now.
Hearing loss is a major public health issue. It is the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.
It is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. Almost 45 percent of people 60 to 69 have hearing loss, and that percentage rises as we get older.
How hearing loss affects my dad
While he is a man of few words and not one to discuss his feelings, my dad nevertheless agreed to be interviewed for this article. While I could not talk with him by phone, I sent the questions via email, and he dictated his responses to my mom. He does not type because of an injury to his right hand that occurred when he was a little boy. Mom serves as his hands and ears much of the time.
This is what he had to say.
Every aspect of his life is affected by his hearing loss: Going to church, a neighbor’s visit, talks with his grandchildren, and more. To some people he may seem aloof, cool, shy, or even confused. He’s none of those. He is sharp, quick-witted, and well-read.
“I like going to church,” he said. “I can hear the Praise Team and I can read on the board what the minister is talking or praying about. I can hear only part of the sermon, but at least they know I’m there. There are some who acknowledge that I am hard of hearing, but I feel like a damn fool when I have to say, ‘What? What? What?’ Then I know they don’t care to talk to me.”
One his neighbors is a frequent visitor. He is a good man, kind and helpful, but there is a disconnect between my father and him. “He knows I am hard of hearing, but yet he won’t sit down in the chair and acknowledge that,” Dad said. “I can’t always hear what he says so I rely on (Lorna) to repeat it. I feel worthless.”
Dad said he always loved to play cards. He could deal a game of Twenty-One like nobody’s business. Some players were hard of hearing, and Dad said he took special note.
“I would always talk louder or get up closer to them so we could carry on a conversation, hoping someday they would do the same for me,” Dad said.
One of the most telling moments of the interview was when he spoke of his beloved grandchildren. “I miss hearing what the grandkids have got to say now because they don’t understand how hard of hearing I am,” he said. “I would love to strike up a conversation with them but I can’t, so I go off and sit by myself. Sure, I feel lonely at times.”
So much of the translation falls to Mom. “I always try to fill him on everything but that isn’t like being in on the conversation,” she said.
An electronic helper
To help fix that problem, my sister Patsy recently purchased an iPad for my parents. There was no better gift. The grandchildren can now email and send pictures, and Dad can read them all by himself — no need for a translator.
That iPad has been life-changing, expanding Dad’s world like nothing else. All of his children, too, can now email him, and he can read for himself what we are up to.
That means he will read this. Thanks for sharing your story, Dad. And Happy 86th!
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Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning health writer living in Palm Springs. She has worked at newspapers in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and at USA Today. Cindy received a 2013-2014 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, chosen as one of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, inducted into the Yankton (S.D.) High School Fine Arts Hall of Fame, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work on Montana’s suicide rate, and named one of Gannett’s Top Ten Supervisors of the Year. Follow Cindy on Twitter @CindyUken, on Facebook and at CindyUken.com.