"Being ‘switched on’ was wonderful. I could hear sounds I’d forgotten. The ticking of a clock, my cat lapping her milk, footsteps, the birds. I felt like I could truly engage with the world again."
Molly loves chatting with her friends in the pub, and with her grandson on the phone. She enjoys listening to folk and rock music. The 63-year-old is also profoundly deaf and one of around 650 deaf or severely hard of hearing adults in the UK each year to benefit from a Cochlear implant: a device which directly stimulates the auditory nerve. It has transformed her life.
Molly was fitted with her implant – from Cochlear® – six years ago, when she was in her late 50s. It was a time when she had been increasingly struggling to get by with her two hearing aids and also with a connected, although undiagnosed, suspected depression.
Molly’s hearing had been failing since her early 20s and by her mid 30s she was fitted with two hearing aids, after an operation proved ineffective long-term for otosclerosis. By the time she reached her mid 50s, life had become difficult, with the hearing aids simply amplifying all sound rather than allowing her to select what she needed to hear.
A fun loving person, Molly’s personality began to change along with her hearing. In the end she avoided the social situations she had previously loved and became increasingly isolated. Living alone, Molly had relished her social life. But going out in an environment where there was a great deal of background noise and overlapping conversations became impossible.
“I have always been outgoing and sociable. I would hold several conversations at once. I loved music, went to rock and folk concerts and to the opera. I knew that losing my hearing meant losing all of that. It meant no longer being part of what was going on. It was very scary,” says Molly, who recalls frequently walking home from her office job with tears streaming down her face.
“Over the years I’d taught myself to lipread, but in a group social situation the conversation never stays still and you don’t know who you should be looking at, so it became very difficult. I’d always miss the punch-line to funny stories – which is never the same when repeated – and even when I could follow what somebody was saying in a one to one chat, the conversation would inevitably turn to discussing my hearing problems, which I was trying not to dwell upon,” she says.
For Molly, living on a narrow boat moored currently on the Grand Union Canal, there were numerous other challenges: not being able to hear if the engine was running smoothly, the directions shouted when manoeuvring a lock or simply engaging in the boating community hubbub. “Life was becoming increasingly difficult and it was exhausting living in a hearing world,” she says.
Molly’s story is typical, according to national hearing charity The Ear Foundation, with older people being two and a half times more likely to experience depression if they have hearing loss. And it gets worse. Those with severe hearing loss have five times the chance of developing dementia. Their balance can also be affected and there is a greater risk of life-threatening falls.
But despite this, older people who could benefit from an implant are often failing to be referred, warns The Ear Foundation’s chief executive Sue Archbold. “Many older adults who have hearing aids that are no longer effective are unaware they could be considered for the more advanced technology of a Cochlear implant,” says Sue. “In fact, it is likely that less than 10% of those who could benefit from a Cochlear implant are fitted with one.”
The problem stems from a lack of awareness from the hard of hearing community as well as the medical profession they are dealing with. Molly, for instance, only chanced upon the technology when she noticed somebody with an implant collecting for a hearing dogs charity in a supermarket car park.
This is exacerbated by people generally putting off seeking help for hearing loss, with an average 10-year delay. The reluctance often comes from people believing their hearing isn’t bad enough – an effective test is whether you can hold a telephone conversation – or feeling embarrassed about wearing a visible hearing device.
But this stigma should be abated with Britain’s ageing population setting the scene for the use of ear technology to become more commonplace. Currently 42% of people aged over 50 years and 71% of people aged over 70 years experience hearing loss. However, there is no age barrier – 6,000 of the 11,000 Cochlear implant users are children and people well into their 90s have been implanted.
Others may be put off by the procedure which takes two to five hours under a local or general anaesthetic and although complex and delicate, is relatively straightforward, with the patient generally returning home after an overnight stay.
Not everyone will be suitable for implant, but those who might be interested could well have been blocked by their GP, with 45% of those asking their doctor for advice on hearing problems failing to be passed on for an audiological assessment.
And so The Ear Foundation is raising awareness of how important it is for people aged 65-plus to get greater access to Cochlear implants.
“Hearing is one of the most acute unmet needs in terms of the health of older people today as people face a greater risk from health problems and the social isolation of deafness,” says Sue Archbold. “We are storing up a catalogue of problems for society unless this is addressed and more people are given the option of having what can be a life-changing procedure.”
For Molly, the choice was a no-brainer. She was implanted at a particularly difficult time when she felt most vulnerable, having lost within weeks both her sister and her father – who she had become the main carer for after her mother died suddenly.
But as soon as her implant was ‘switched on’ and she could hear every word her audiologist said she knew her life was back on track. “It was wonderful. I could hear sounds I’d forgotten. The ticking of a clock, my cat lapping her milk, footsteps, the birds. I felt like I could truly engage with the world again,” she enthuses.
Better than that, her experience gave her the confidence to propel herself into a new career. Living on her narrowboat over the previous 20-odd years, she had toyed with casual work in the winter and travelling in the summer, never really finding her true vocation.
Having come back from her low point, she wanted to give something back and has retrained as a lipreading tutor. “This was something I knew about, and could pass on my experiences,” she says. “I am now vice chair of The Association of Teachers of Lipreading to Adults, I do loads of work promoting lipreading, Cochlear implants and hearing issues. I still live on a boat and life is great. I can even listen to music again!”
The information on this website is for educational purposes, and is not intended to replace medical advice. Please consult a hearing healthcare professional to diagnose or treat a hearing or health problem.