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When Mom Can Hear and You Can’t

Aging mother and daughter

As my mother got older, our roles reversed, as they will when a parent reaches the ninth and even 10th decade. But there was one way in which she grew stronger, while I grew weaker. She could hear, and I couldn’t.

In her 80s, my mother’s mind and body succumbed to aging. She developed dementia, she had frequent falls and was often wheelchair bound. She and my father had moved south to a retirement community, so as not to be a burden to their adult children, she said. (As the adult child who bore the brunt of the responsibility, I will say that moving far from your children is no way to spare them the burden of care. It only adds to it.)

After my father died, when Mom was 85, she refused to move back north closer to her children. We felt we had to respect her wishes. She stayed in the house, with 24-hour-a-day nurses’ aides. Despite this care, 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.

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Eventually, against her wishes, my siblings and I decided to move her to the long-term nursing care facility at the community where they lived. She ended up thriving there. It was a good move.

During this period of her decline, my own hearing was failing. There was a time when she was still living at home, without a full-time caregiver, when I could no longer hear on the telephone. If there was a crisis, I’d dial 911 or the doctor or nurse, and then hand the phone to her. She would listen. When someone answered she’d hand the phone back to me. I’d explain the situation and hand the phone back to her. She would listen and tell me, sentence by sentence, what had been said. She wasn’t always clear about what she was hearing, but she could repeat it.

She was the interpreter, that is, without really understanding the language.

Once she was in the nursing facility, there were fewer crises. But the gulf caused by my hearing loss only widened.

As she became less clear mentally, and as her voice weakened, I not only often couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I never was 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 doing that when you’re straining to hear and understand every word.

I couldn’t understand her caregivers either, most of them born and bred in the deep South (she lived in South Carolina). My sister, when she visited, chatted with them about their lives. I could only ask vague questions and smile and nod. When someone gave me information I had to hear — medical information, legal information — we’d go into a quiet room with no oxygen machine whooshing, no background TV noise, no chatter of nurses and other residents.

I often went to see Mom on Mother’s Day. She died early in 2014, so this is the second Mother’s Day since her death. Last year I was sad but also relieved that her long decline had ended peacefully. This year I’m simply sad, about all that I missed in those last years of my mother’s life. Despite hearing aids and a cochlear implant, and hearing-assistive devices galore, my hearing and her dementia still created a nearly unbridgeable 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 or the parent is 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.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Bouton

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