It’s all a far cry from those body-worn hearing aids

Pauline Jenkins Audiologist demonstrates a modern hearing aid. February 20th 2013 E08176P
Pauline Jenkins Audiologist demonstrates a modern hearing aid. February 20th 2013 E08176P

It’s open workshop day in the audiology department at the Park Practice, just across the road from the David Lloyd

Leisure Club.

Three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays, between 10am to midday and 2pm to 4pm, anyone with a hearing aid which is giving them a problem can bring it in to get it fixed.

And with an estimated 20,000 hearing aid wearers in the greater Eastbourne area, which includes Bexhill, Seaford and Crowborough, the waiting room is kept pretty busy.

Keeping a careful eye and ear on what is happening is Pauline Jenkins, who is principal audiologist for the East Sussex Health Care Trust, a position she has held for the past 20 years since succeeding the revered Rosemary McCall, who established the Link Centre.

“We probably get 60 to 70 new referrals every month,” revealed Pauline, who also manages the audiology set-up at the Conquest Hospital in Hastings.

“Modern day digital hearing aids have come on enormously.

“I remember the days when you had body-worn hearing aids in leather satchells with a microphone to your chest. They used to rub on your clothing

“Then, people didn’t do anything about their hearing problems until they got really bad.

“Deafness didn’t become an issue until Governments were talking about industrial hearing levels in the 1970s.

“Then, people began to accept they had hearing issues, especially younger people and so there was far greater acceptance by the time digital hearing aids started to come on line in the NHS 12 years ago.

“We have got to the stage where hearing aids are so good that I am not sure how much further they can go.”

The biggest issue hearing aid users now have is understanding how the systems work, using them to their best effect.

There are different set-ups for different hearing aids - a far cry from the simple days of the O, T and M (off, loop, microphone) settings on the older analogue systems.

One issue which hearing aid users face from next month is a choice over who will be responsible for fitting their hearing aid. Previously, it was a one stop shop and hearing aid users would get their equipment fitted and replaced through the health trust. Now businesses, such as opticians will be able to fit and maintain hearing aids to patients over the age of 55 for non-complicated hearing issues, through work commissioned by the hospital.

What this will mean is uncertain. It will mean wider choice for patients, although some fear this could also lead to confusion. For Pauline and her team, while they will continue to work with complex issues, liaising with ear, nose and throat consultants, their level of regular work may decline.

By then, Pauline will have retired from her current job, although she hopes to stay on in some capacity to work with a community she has grown fond of.

It’s a long way from training as a student at the Kent & Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells in 1968 with a Welsh audiologist called Derek Edwards.

He had a hearing disability which helped Pauline to appreciate the difficulties faced by those she deals with every day of her working life.

Acceptance of having a hearing disability is much easier than 40 years ago. Technology has moved on, so the quality of life for those who struggle with their hearing, to whatever level, has improved too.

Pauline tells a story of a Welsh woman in her thirties who had moved to Eastbourne.

She had a hearing problem but was very reticent about using her hearing aid, partly through vanity and also because she was still young.

“This lady had only just started to wear her hearing aid and I asked her what had made her want to do it.

“She explained that after moving to East Sussex, she needed to go to the bank to sort out a few things. The bank manager had no idea she was hard of hearing, and when they met he suddently announced ‘You will have to excuse me but I have a hearing problem, I wear a hearing aid so if I get anything wrong then please put me right’.

“The lady was really surprised. Here was the bank manager admitting he had a hearing problem, and she thought why can’t I admit I have a problem. I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”

It’s why Pauline is a strong advocate of the hearing loop system and is keen to promote the use of loops in Eastbourne.

But for the campaign to work it is a two-way partnership, she admitted.

Firstly it is up to the businesses to ensure their loop systems are working, well maintained and signposted, but also it was beholden on those with a hearing disability to speak up.

“We have got to promote better understanding of the problem.

“I know a lot of elderly folk get frustrated and irate that younger people don’t help them to understand what is going on.

“They turn away when speaking, they might not speak up. People mustn’t be afraid to politely ask for help because it will help change attitudes.”