Purging closets bursting with hideous ties reminded me of how difficult it is to “gift” a father with something of value on Father’s Day.
I had a very close relationship with my father and both grandfathers, who supported and protected me always. Fatherly and grandfatherly support is a profound gift for any daughter or granddaughter. I am eternally grateful for these mentors and wish their loving influence had persisted longer.
All my fathers had excellent longevity. But what could have helped them to live even longer, more engaged and fuller lives? Here is what I wish I had given them: Release from the need to appear to be consistently strong, self-sufficient and invincible. The ability to acknowledge and adapt to advancing age and associated infirmities and the courage to admit the inability to solve every problem alone. I wish I could have gifted them the willingness to seek and use help when indicated. To release them from a belief that seeking help means you are “less of a …,” whatever it is, that you feel you must always and consistently be, as a father and as a man.
The gift I would bestow on all fathers is the courage to address the curse that took the intellect of my father, one grandfather and my father-in-law: age-related hearing loss, also known as ARHL. Not being able to hear or properly process information made these men first defensive, then blameful, isolated and in denial. Eventually it rendered them less companionable and less interesting to people around them, ignored and, ultimately, avoided by those who might have helped them prevent the dementia that resulted from ARHL.
More than 460 million people worldwide suffer from disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., hearing loss affects one-third of those 65 to 74 years old and nearly half of those older than 75, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports. ARHL is the most common remediable cause of cognitive impairment, falls and depression. Johns Hopkins researchers found up to a fivefold increased risk in older adults of developing cognitive impairment, including dementia, when significant hearing impairment remains unaddressed.
Although I owe all of my education to my financially astute grandfather, his stubborn refusal to address hearing loss ultimately led to social isolation. As fresh memories faded, repetition of the same stories made him less engaging and, ultimately to some, the object of derision. The exact same denial in my once-gregarious father led to ostracism in his retirement community, contributing to his death by a stroke after multiple falls. My even more sociable father-in-law developed a form of dementia that was completely surgically curable, but the hearing loss he refused to address made him so uninteresting to be around that no one realized what was happening until it was too late for surgery.
By contrast, my physician grandfather, who used hearing aids, practiced medicine until he died at 81.
If you have ARHL, you may be thinking, “If everyone would just come closer, put down their gadgets, look directly at me, stop mumbling and enunciate more clearly, there would be no problem.” Right?
Wrong. Incoming students in an audiology program were required to wear earplugs for their first three days. That first day, they could ask people to repeat what they had said. By the second, students noticed their interactions became shorter and terser. By the third, people actively began to avoid them. These “hearing impaired” students were essentially being isolated. This same sequence occurs even in close and long-term relationships, albeit more gradually.
If you are beginning to experience hearing loss, your loved ones are sympathetic and supportive at first. ARHL is a disability, and it’s probably not your fault. But as it becomes more difficult to make ourselves understood, we are less likely (when communication is not truly essential) to make an effort. If we’ve brought the hearing issue up many times before, and you do not respond, you begin to seem more stubborn than fragile. ARHL is easily addressed, and yet, to a loved one, your denial of it feels as if you don’t care about your own well-being, the health of our relationship or the happiness or even safety of those who love and may depend on you.
If your father is one of the 500 million worldwide with hearing loss, try this gift: Remind him that you love him dearly and want him as a trusted adviser for as long as humanly possible. Urge him to have his hearing tested and to get hearing aids if indicated. These devices are both effective and almost invisible, and effective alternatives are also available over-the-counter.
Honor your father by giving him this courage and love on Father’s Day.
Louise Andrew is a physician attorney and disability rights advocate who represents over 60,000 senior physician members of the American Medical Association. She wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.
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