In Depth


The hearing aid revolution

Forget what Granny wore — today's devices range from the invisible to those in leopard print and Bluetooth-enabled

Last Updated February 26, 2007

Like many people with hearing loss, Toronto jewelry designer Mimi Shulman was ashamed of her problem and put off wearing hearing aids for years.

Fourteen years ago, she decided to buck the trend. Shulman created a colourful assortment of bat wings, iridescent fish and whimsical painted and bejeweled molded plastic pieces that attach to hearing aids and tuck in neatly behind the ear.

The latest hearing aids, such as Oticon's Delta line, are designed as fashion accessories with bold colours and shapes that are intended to be noticed.

"I got my first hearing aids when I was in my thirties, but I didn't use them for two years after that," said Shulman, who now markets her EarWear collection online. "But then I realized that the best way to deal with it was to show them off."

Shulman was ahead of her time when she rejected the old-school attitude to hearing aids and began turning them into fashion statements.

Now, with baby boomers hitting middle age, the industry is catching up, marketing a whole raft of devices that combine high-tech wizardry and sleek aesthetics.

Huge jumps in technology

The new-generation hearing aids are smaller, smarter and better-looking than their predecessors.

And the advances in digital technologies mean these units can now do much more than simply amplify sound. Directional microphones can be fine-tuned to zero in on specific frequencies coming from specific directions, or to cancel persistent background noise such as fans or traffic.

While Shulman's approach is all about showing off a hearing aid, there are also highly sophisticated in-the-ear devices available now that are virtually invisible to the naked eye.

New "open fit" devices mean that users don't have to plug up their ears with form-fitted ear moulds that can make a person feel like they're talking in a tunnel.

Developers are also tackling the problem of power — or at least not having to replace expensive batteries regularly. The latest iteration is a rechargeable aid that can be plugged into a charger or a USB port alongside your iPod to get a fresh jolt of juice.

The marketing is also getting slicker. New models introduced in recent months sport high-performance names like Pulse and Delta. Colour options range from tones that blend with your skin or hair colour, to bright metallics and animal prints for more adventurous spirits.

Next on the launch pad will be Bluetooth-enabled devices, which are expected later this year. They'll let people link their hearing aids with gadgets such as cellphones, landline phones and portable audio players.

Boomers 'don't want what their grandmothers used to wear'

It's all part of taking the stigma out of an experience that has had so many negative connotations for many people, said Heather Ferguson, the president of the Toronto-based Hearing Foundation of Canada.

And that's important in a world where people are starting to lose their hearing 20 years earlier than they used to an increase in harmfully loud noises.

"I can't tell you how many people I run into in their late forties who are upset because they have to wear hearing aids," Ferguson said.

"[Hearing aids] have always been so ugly, and people associate them with aging. But there [also] used to be a stigma around glasses until they became fashion items."

Ross Harwell, audiology manager for the hearing aid specialist Oticon Canada, noted that the industry has been waiting for baby boomers to arrive and spark the drive for more fashionable hearing aids.

"They're different from the typical seniors you see. They have access to more information. And they don't want what their grandmothers used to wear."

Full-service retailers market hearing aids like glasses

Even the act of purchasing hearing instruments has gotten a boost in recent years, according to Ed Braun, the managing director of hearing aid designer and supplier ReSound in Toronto.

"Go back to 1985 and hearing care offices were on the fourteenth floor at the back of a building," Braun said.

Now there are street-level full-service outlets like ListenUp! that are turning the whole exercise into a more appealing retail experience. Opened in 2004, ListenUp! already has 26 locations in Ontario.

"We felt that if we bring it out in the open, it will help to remove the stigma about hearing aids and increase awareness about hearing loss," ListenUp! vice-president and chief audiologist M. J. DeSousa explained.

"We're out to change the whole experience and reach that 80 per cent of people with hearing loss who go without treatment."

ListenUp! stores are trying to do for hearing aids what opticians did for glasses. They have an array of product displays and audiologists on site to provide testing services and walk customers through the features of the various makes and models.

ListenUp! vice-president and chief audiologist M. J. DeSousa speaks with a client and a hearing specialist.

"Today's customers are looking for high-tech aesthetics and features," DeSousa said. "They want to integrate devices into their life and address their communication demands. It's great, because that puts pressure on manufacturers to step up."

With manufacturers and audiologists pushing the envelope, it appears that the message is getting through to hard-of-hearing consumers.

"In 2006, penetration of hearing aids went up for the first time in many years"" reports ReSound's Braun. "That's a big transition in something that hasn't changed for decades."

For Shulman, who has lived with hearing loss most of her life, it's none too soon.

"I spent half my life faking it by not wearing hearing aids," she said. "But they help you to pay attention to what's really going on in life. The best way to deal with it is to make it so you can wear them with pride."

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