What to know when you’re looking for hearing aids

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DULUTH -- Don’t think you need hearing aids? Listen up.

“I would just really encourage people to get the damn hearing aid,” said Denette Lynch, whose husband and other family members use them. “Their life with their family would be a whole lot better. It would be a lot less frustrating. So even if they don’t do it for themselves, do it for their spouse and kids and grandkids and those they interact with. Because it is really annoying to be with somebody who should have hearing aids and doesn’t, and you’re having to yell and scream.”

Your loved one needs hearing aids and isn’t listening to you? Denial is a common thread, said Kathi Mestayer, who for two decades has been an advocate for people with hearing loss.

“One of the main driving forces behind denial is that nobody wants to feel like they have a disability,” said Mestayer, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., and writes for Hearing Health Magazine. She also uses hearing aids. “Nobody wants to feel flawed. The other thing is that there’s a stigma associated with aging that … is associated with hearing loss.”

Suggest getting a hearing check to establish a “baseline” for future reference, Mestayer advised. Suggest it’s no different than a routine checkup on dental health or vision health.

You are ready for hearing aids, but money could be an issue? That is a problem, said Shaeleen Fagre, an audiologist and clinical supervisor at the University of Minnesota. Generally, the cost is between $1,000 and $3,000 per hearing aid, said Fagre (more on that later). For the most part, health insurance doesn’t pay for that. Medicare doesn’t cover hearing aids; nor does it cover testing for the purpose of getting hearing aids.

“That’s something that we hear a lot — that it’s frustrating for people to not have those benefits,” Fagre said.

You’re ready for hearing aids and want to do it right? We asked Lynch, who lives in West Duluth and is best known as an advocate for dog parks, for her advice, and also checked with Fagre and Mestayer.

Here’s what we came away with:

Real ear measurement

Insist on it, Fagre said.

Two people with the same kind of hearing loss, the same amount of hearing loss and the same hearing aid will need different programming based on the size and shape of their ear canals, she said. The only way to know what programming is best for you is with real ear measurement, which involves placing microphones in the ear along with the hearing aid to test its output.

“The sad, sad part of that is as an industry, I think the last statistic I heard is only a third of audiologists are doing that measurement,” Fagre said, “which is just abysmal.”

Telecoil loop

If you have a telecoil loop or T loop in your hearing aid and the theater or courtroom or public building you go to has an induction loop, your hearing aids function as headphones, and you get clear sound through the sound system, Fagre said. Although she has normal hearing, she has worn hearing aids to a play because the sound was so much better, she added.

“If I was shopping for hearing aids, I would ask for a device that has a telecoil loop,” Fagre said.

And let the people in charge of the courtrooms/theaters/public buildings know that induction loops are valued.

As you’ve gathered by now, these are not your father’s hearing aids, or even your uncle’s. Today’s hearing aids can be Bluetooth-compatible. Denette Lynch’s husband, Bill, can hear their television through his hearing aids, even when he’s out of the room, she said. He carries a tiny remote control with which he can mute the sound if they want to talk during commercials.

Expect choices

You’ll see aggressive marketing from sellers that offer only a single brand. Don’t buy from them, Metsayer advises.

“I sat next to a guy that I know who has hearing aids from them, and they cost $10,000,” she related. “That’s usurious. That’s just really, really wrong. … They’re taking advantage of people who don’t know to shop around.”

You should have the option to try at least three brands of hearing aid, Metsayer said — not three models of the same brand.

Whom should you see?

You can go to an audiologist or certified hearing instrument dispenser.

“I would always want a real audiologist,” Metsayer said.

Fagre, the audiologist, isn’t as definite.

“Statistically, hearing instrument dispensers perform (real ear measurements) 5 percent more than audiologist do,” Fagre said. “There are good and bad providers in every walk of life.”

Whomever you go to, don’t leave without a paper copy of exam results, Metsayer said. You don’t have to buy at the place where you got the exam.

What should you spend?

A couple years ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter hearing aid sales from people who are neither audiologists nor certified dispensers, Metsayer said. As a result, you can get hearing aids for $50 from Amazon.com.

She doesn’t recommend it.

But both she and Lynch gave props to Costco. The wholesaler has credentialed personnel, multiple brands and significant discounts, Metsayer said.

What you should spend varies depending on your needs, Fagre said. Someone who is active and wants to communicate in group settings will want a higher level of technology, which will cost more. Someone with a quieter lifestyle can do well with a more basic model.

Ask about returns

You should ask if the seller has a no-fault return policy, Metsayer said. In some states, that’s required.

In Minnesota, the buyer must be provided with a 45-calendar-day written money-back guarantee, said Christine T. Morgan, president of the Hearing Loss Association of America Twin Cities chapter, in an email.

Costco offers a 180-day window during which the hearing aids can be returned and adjusted or replaced or the total amount refunded, according to a statement from the company.

Got ’em? Use ’em

Mestayer jokes that there are three kinds of hearing aids: behind the ear, in the ear canal and in the dresser drawer.

That may have something to do with unrealistic expectations.

“They think the hearing aids are going to bring their hearing back to normal, and they don’t,” Mestayer said. “In many cases, it’s a huge improvement in quality of life and all kinds of other things. But it does not bring your hearing back to normal.”

When Denette first knew Bill Lynch, he used his hearing aids sporadically, she said. But that was a long time ago, and he wears them first thing in the morning until last thing at night now.

“Don’t do them in and out,” she said. “Don’t have them part time. Just submerge yourself in them.”