It is true that hearing aids can’t fully compensate for hearing loss to the same degree that eyeglasses restore 20/20 vision. They are rehabilitative devices that, when properly programmed and fitted, help wearers fulfill their best hearing potential. But this potential varies from person to person, depending on the nature and extent of their hearing loss. Some persons who wear hearing aids can hear sound but can’t always understand the words being spoken. This is particularly the case for those who suffer from high-frequency hearing loss or who have damage to their auditory system. For these people, the benefits of hearing aids are often limited.

Although hearing aids can’t restore normal hearing, they have improved the lives of millions of people—enabling them to use their senses more fully and communicate more effectively with others. Many first-time hearing-aid wearers are surprised at the improved quality of their lives. An AARP study of hearing aids reported hearing-aid-user comments such as the following: “It’s such a joy to go for my walk in the early morning and hear the birds singing, which I could not hear before. It is also a pleasure to hear all of a sermon at church or someone’s conversation rather than parts.”

You want to make sure your hearing aid works properly, maximizes the benefits it offers, and lasts a long time.

Getting a Good Fit

When your hearing aid arrives at the store, make sure it is properly fitted and adjusted. Staff should use “real ear” measurements, a process that monitors the response of the hearing aid in the ear canal as adjustments and decisions about hearing-aid settings are made. This requires special equipment distinct from the fitting software and equipment used to program the hearing aid. Real ear measurement can use a variety of stimuli to view and actively manipulate the response of the hearing aid to maximize access to speech and ensure overall listening comfort. This takes time and expertise, but it is critical because simply programming the hearing aid using the manufacturer’s software cannot ensure proper hearing-aid settings.

The staff can also verify that the hearing aid is working optimally with more traditional testing in the sound booth (by repeating portions of the hearing test while the patient wears aids), although such testing provides less specific information.

Staff should also provide a full orientation to your new aids, showing you how to insert them, work controls, maintain and care for them, store them, and replace batteries.

Judging How Well It Works

Hold off on any snap judgments about how well your new device works until you have had time to get used to the new sounds. At first, wear your aid for short periods of time or in non-taxing listening environments. You’ll have to learn to integrate background noises—such as the hum of a refrigerator—into the spectrum of other noises you process. You may need to adjust to the sound of your own voice, which can sound much different when heard through your hearing aid. You may even have to relearn certain forgotten sounds.

After two or three weeks, answer the following questions:

  • Overall, does the hearing aid seem to be helping you hear better?
  • Does the hearing aid feel comfortable?
  • Are the sounds that enter your ear from the aid comfortable? Are soft sounds audible? Are loud sounds too loud?
  • Can you adjust to any new sounds you hear from the aid? Does there seem to be an echo or hollow or tinny noises?
  • Have you been able to insert the aid, clean it, and change the battery?

If you feel the aid does not meet your expectations, return to the dispenser. Good sellers are willing to help. Minor complaints about sound quality or fit can usually be resolved easily. More serious problems may require remaking a mold or delivering sound to the ear differently—maybe with a different type of hearing aid.

If the dispenser is willing to make adjustments, get the dispenser to put in writing that it is extending the return period to allow you time to decide whether it needs further adjustment.

If things just don’t work out within the return period, decide whether you want to return it.

Caring for Your Aid

Proper care will prolong the life of your hearing aid and keep it functioning properly.

Although they are built to be durable, hearing aids can be damaged if they are dropped on hard surfaces or become wet—remove them when swimming or showering. Dogs enjoy chewing on hearing aids, so keep them in a secure place when not in use. Doors for batteries and access to controls should open easily; if you’re having trouble, don’t force the issue.

Moisture and wax can clog and damage components. If possible, remove your hearing aid during any activity that causes excessive perspiration. Follow the seller’s and manufacturer’s directions on how to clean the aid—and make a habit of actually doing it. Most aids need to be cleaned daily.

Take your aid to the seller periodically for more thorough cleaning and maintenance. Some aids will need tune-ups every three months, others only once per year.

Hearing and Listening Training

Purchasing a hearing aid is one aspect of an overall treatment plan. Other steps—including hearing and listening training and counseling—can help integrate those with hearing loss into the hearing world by taking full advantage of their existing hearing resources. These steps can include learning to use speech reading and other visual cues, understanding how to position oneself in hard-to-hear situations, and learning how to assert one’s needs in different hearing environments.

Your hearing specialist may be able to provide these services, but other sources can also help. Community colleges and universities often offer classes in hearing training and aural rehabilitation.

And consider joining a support group for hearing-aid wearers. In addition to providing moral support, groups share ideas about what works and what doesn’t when wearing an aid. The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) (301-657-2248) can link you to groups in your area.