I have to admit the painful truth: I've entered my second childhood. You might be, too, if you're having trouble hearing what some people — sales clerks, customer service reps, the dishwasher repairman, maybe even your doctor — are saying to you.
Since much of the information they give and many of the questions they answer are repetitive, they fall into a rapid "spiel" mode like the server reeling off today's chef special, table after table. And you can't understand most of it.
Don't fret: While your hearing may not be quite as acute as it used to be, you still have no trouble listening to your bridge club partner or the neighbor's kids at play, and you don't need captions to enjoy the TV.
When you can't hear certain people, the fault probably lies with the offending speaker, whose words are spilling out much too fast for your aging ears to process.
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How does "second childhood" explain an elder's hearing problems? Let's go to the Wichita State University Child Development Center, where they conducted a special study to discover why small children don't seem to listen to instructions.
They found that the reason might not be disobedience; it could be physical. According to WSU audiology professor Raymond Hull, when the child's undeveloped nervous system is not yet fully functional, it can't navigate the complex neural route that translates sounds into message.
At age 3 or 4, children comprehend better when speech is uttered at about 124 words per minute, yet most adults average from 160 to 180 wpm, and many TV newspersons edge upwards from that.
"The trick to get children to really hear and comprehend isn't speaking up," Hull advises, "it's slowing down."
So much for little kids; let's move on to us old folks. The professor points out that age-related changes in the auditory canal often render the older adult's hearing capacity closer to that of the child.
"The (child's) maturing brain... and the aging brain in adulthood are very similar in what they can handle," he said. "(Both) can only process the complexities of speech and language well when it is spoken at a rate that is slower than the speed at which typical adults generally speak."
It boils down to this: We might now have entered our auditory "second childhood" when we have trouble interpreting the waiter who asks "d'yawantgravyw'that?"
So we invest in a hearing aid. I say "invest" because Medicare does not cover that cost. For ordinary conversation, a good one helps a great deal.
But few hearing aids filter out background noise, and they do little or nothing at all to help us understand that soft-spoken somebody who runs off at the mouth at breakneck pace.
Since the non-hearer has no control over the speedster, it's up to every speaker to analyze their own speech patterns. If every person in the service industry would memorize and apply these four simple rules, how much easier life for the hearing-impaired would be.
1. Slow down. Don't run the words together; give each word its own space.
2. Open your mouth. Don't swallow the words, spit them out.
3. Speak just a little louder. But don't shout, as shouting distorts sound.
4. Change the wording. Don't just recite the same words at the same speed.
Of course, we must also be aware of our own way of speaking. Some of us amp up the volume because we no longer hear ourselves as we used to, while others tone down to a whisper to avoid being a loudmouth.
If friends and family remind you to either pipe down or speak up, it's possible that's the problem. It might be a good idea to ask a friend you can trust to let you know if you need to adjust your tone level.
Then don't worry that either your hearing, or your speaking, will let the world know that you have entered that widespread "second childhood" society.