Ask the grumpies: Advice about hearing aids

D asks:

Some of us older academics are having aging issues, loss of hearing being one of them. Hearing aids seem to be very expensive and way overpriced at the neighborhood audiology office. What is the experience of similar folks in buying hearing aids and getting support? For example, I’ve heard Costco sells good, inexpensive “non-rip off” hearing aids- but the sample size is 2-3. Also, any experiences with insurance coverage?

Disclaimer:  We are not medical professionals!  Get medical advice from real professionals and/or do your own research before making any important healthcare decisions.

My father has a hearing aid from Costco.  He put off getting one for decades because, as you say, the neighborhood audiology office is expensive, but finally decided Costco was a good enough deal.  He seems happy with it.  So, that’s another N=1.

My FIL has the overpriced audiology version and he seems happy with it.

Both of them complain that it’s hard to separate out voices in a crowded room, and both tend to turn theirs off at restaurants or other crowded locations (my FIL tends to use restaurant time as time to catch up on napping).  Technology may have improved since they got their aids though, I don’t know.

Consumer reports reviews hearing aids, so you might want to look into what they have to say (they do like Costco’s Kirkland brand).  This article talks a bit about the pros and cons of Costco hearing aids.

In terms of insurance coverage, that will vary across plans so it’s probably easiest to give your insurance carrier a call and ask if it isn’t clear in the plan info provided by your university (or by wherever you get your insurance).  Some states only require that insurance provide hearing aid coverage for children.  Others include adults.  Many states don’t require it at all.  You can get more information here.  Many insurance plans will cover the screening but not the aids themselves.  But again, it’s something that varies by plan.

Grumpy Nation:  Do you have any better information than we have?  Do you or a loved one have experiences with hearing aids that you could share?

34 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Advice about hearing aids”

  1. wally Says:

    I don’t know anything about brands, but my mom got one that she can use to talk on the phone/listen to audiobooks or music and it has obviated the need for earpods, which is pretty amazing.

    • Leah Says:

      Did your mom also have to get a microphone? My hearing aid connects to my phone, so I can listen to music and such. But I turned off the connection because phone calls would also ring through from there, and I couldn’t use my phone microphone. Thus, I could hear people, but they couldn’t hear me.

      I should look and see if that’s been fixed in app updates. I don’t want to have to carry around a microphone.

      • wally Says:

        Nope – she uses the phone mike (she uses her ipad for video calls – but I just sent her a tripod for her phone so she can talk on facetime without the other person only being able to see from her nose up – made xmas hard bc I couldn’t see what she was opening and she kept asking questions about the things I sent her).

  2. Anon F Says:

    It depends on the extent of their hearing loss and what value is put on being able to hear and in what situations being able to hear is essential. Eventually it becomes socially isolating when you cannot hear in groups. Mild hearing loss may be manageable with simple aids but moderate may need more specialized ones. Technology has advanced a lot in the last few years and continues to do so. Possibly at the neighborhood office you are paying for the professional support in addition to the hearing aid. E.g. annual checks, maintenance etc.

  3. Chelsea Says:

    No advice on hearing aids, but I have an Ask the Grumpies question:

    I need a recommendation for a new couch. Right now we have a 12-year-old, tan, fabric-covered 3-cushion sleeper sofa from Ashley furniture. I would describe the style as “normal couch”. It has served us well but – after daily hard use by three children – it is pretty nasty. To the point that, despite replacing the cushions once and washing the cushion covers (and spraying them with pee-neutralizing spray) I really don’t like to sit or lay on it anymore. Even my mother, who never replaces anything until it is absolutely worn out, says “couches don’t last forever…” in reference to ours.

    We are looking for something durable and reasonably priced. We don’t want a sleeper this time. We are trying to decide if the ease of care that would come with a “leather” sofa is worth the extra expense. I wish I liked the Ikea Ektorp because it seems perfect for us, but I feel like it always looks very “rumpled” in the showroom and like it might not hold up well. But I could be convinced otherwise. I do not like the “overstuffed” look but don’t care much about the styling otherwise. I would love to spend less than $1k but could do between $1k and $2k for something really great that would last.

    I would love to hear readers’ suggestions for a family/pet friendly couch. Thanks!

  4. EB Says:

    Costco does have better prices. But, if your hearing loss is complicated, the benefit of seeing the same audiologist at each visit (not a given at Costco, for obvious reasons) you may prefer the private practice option. By “complicated,” I mean if your hearing loss is not simple age-related loss of hearing in the higher frequencies. For example, mine may have started with measles at the age of 6, then added age-related but somewhat severe in one ear, and exacerbated by another viral illness five years ago in the other to the point where I can’t hear in the higher or the lower frequencies, only a small window in the mid-range. My audiologist tracks the progression of this loss, separately in each ear, and makes adjustments to the hearing aids every 6 months, with a full hearing test every year (covered by insurance). I think I get enough added value from having a consistent care provider to justify the higher price. Plus she picked up one of my hearing aids from my porch during shelter in place and repaired it!

    I’m still working and doing complicated volunteer projects, which would not be possible without the much improved hearing that I get from this arrangement. But I do agree that the non-insured issue is serious; the insurers, I’m sure, don’t want to be stuck paying for more than any particular individual needs, but who is to make that judgment? it’s possible to pay a huge amount for a smart phone-linked hearing aid/s where you can adjust for different environments and modify the volume wherever you are, but to what extent is this really needed?

    • Leah Says:

      I’ve got a hearing aid that can technically link to my smart phone. I tried it out and wasn’t real eager to futz around. I do work with just one audiologist and have been super happy. She makes all the adjustments for me. I’m going in for a hearing test soon to check if I’ve had more loss or need adjustments. I agree that it’s worth the higher price. My insurance just covers the one hearing test a year and nothing more, and I still felt it worthwhile to pay out of pocket for my hearing aid. I just have one in my bad ear (childhood infections affected one ear much more than the other).

  5. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I haven’t had personal experience, but Bose has recently gotten approval for their supposedly conversation -focused Otc hearing aid/headphones.

  6. af184793 Says:

    I have a friend who’s an audiologist so am somewhat biased, but: audiologists are highly-trained medical professionals and it’s worth going to a real one, at a reputable practice. Yes, there are places where you can get ripped off, but research and ask around and you should be able to find a good one. That’s not to say Costco might not be fine for some people, but there’s a reason hearing aids can be expensive: it is sometimes very hard to correct hearing loss.

    • EB Says:

      True. My audiologist had me checked for an auditory nerve tumor before she felt comfortable prescribing and providing hearing aids.

  7. Debbie M Says:

    I have only hearsay information. But I’ve heard that modern technology has made it much cheaper to fine-tune your hearing aids for your specific needs. And that’s why Costco can offer them.

    Also, a lot of insurance companies have phone lines where you can call them and ask them about different options (because if you’re always paying the same deductible, you may not notice or care about actual price differentials). Of course they are going to be biased to steer to into lower-cost options (in the short term), but then you can read reviews.

    And of course you can ask your doctor about pros and cons of various options. And you can also try getting a second opinion.

    And finally, I keep telling myself to learn American Sign Language, not only for this reason, but also because it would be handy in many other situations (like where it’s too loud to hear people, or you’re supposed to be quiet, or you’re on opposite sides of a window, or your mouth is full, or you’re at the dentist). Of course, this only works when other people also know it (so, most likely, not the classroom), but maybe you can get together a study group of friends and relatives to learn together.

    • Anon F Says:

      It really depends on your type of hearing loss. If it’s common and easily corrected then it’s easy to do nowadays. The new hearing aids come with preset software programs that in theory should provide the settings that correspond to what they measure as loss in your ear. However in reality this is not the case and the settings may not be optimal. The audiologist will often say you just have to get used to the hearing aid. I consider these ones lazy. They don’t listen to patient feedback that it’s too noisy etc. That’s why many people buy aids and don’t use them because they are not optimized for them despite what the computer says.
      It’s important to test several brand and optimize the settings. So about 3-4 visits for each aid tested. If you really need fine tuning then a skilled audiologist is indispensable. I don’t live in US but if possible test both the aids and audiologist and see what’s best.
      It may be cheaper nowadays because there are more brands available and it’s a growing market so lots of people trying to get in on it.

      • Debbie M Says:

        “…you just have to get used to the hearing aid.” Yikes, not just lazy but mean, rude, unprofessional, and, because I’ve been reading a lot of westerns lately, clearly a shooting offense. :-)

      • Leah Says:

        I agree! That’s why I love my audiologist. She can go into the software and fine tune specific frequencies. I was having a problem at first in public bathrooms. The noise of the metal lock sliding was so jarring. She was able to turn down that frequency and adjust.

        I did only try the one hearing aid, but it has been great for me. Again, that’s due to a great audiologist, I think. We spent about 45 minutes talking about my hearing needs and looking at my hearing report, and she brought out a few different options for me to see. I’ve been super happy. I have had a hearing aid for two years now and likely should have gotten one 15 years ago.

  8. Matthew D Healy Says:

    I’ve worn hearing aids since early childhood, which means more than 50 years. The technology has improved a great deal over that period of time. The difficulty of finding a good audiologist has not improved, unfortunately. I myself moved a thousand miles a few years ago, so don’t know anything about local providers here. One of my post-pandemic plans is to select somebody and get new ones because my current pair are about five years old now. I’m waiting because (1) case counts are quite high in Iowa so I’m reluctant to sit in a room away from home until the numbers come way down and (2) when my social life is mostly Zoom I can just crank the volume on headphones. But someday DW and I will again visit noisy restaurants and so forth!

    When the time comes I’ll ask friends from church whom they recommend, check qualifications online, etc., etc., but it’s NOT easy even for a very experienced buyer. At least I do know what questions to ask.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It sounds like you’re against Costco then? What kind of questions should a person ask?

      • Matthew D Healy Says:

        Well I want certain features including:

        Directional microphone and omnidirectional microphone and software that intelligently uses both depending on situation

        Multiple “modes” that can be customized. Mine include “general”, “noisy restaurant” with more emphasis on cutting out behind and to the sides, “music” that tries harder to avoid feedback from sustained organ notes, and “car” that really cranks up the noise reduction. Typically a new pair involves several visits to the audiologist: one to get tested and place the order, one for initial setup when they arrive, one about a week later for adjusting based on my experience using them, and one more visit after another week or two when final tweaks are made. It’s not just about my hearing test, it’s also about the settings in which I use them. Like organ music at church.

      • Matthew D Healy Says:

        I’ve had aids with a wireless microphone that I could hand to, say, the speaker in a meeting, but although it sounded nice in theory it wasn’t all that useful to me.

        I used to always get an inductive pickup “telephone” feature but nowadays I just use either speakerphone or wired headphones instead.

      • Matthew D Healy Says:

        During the pandemic I’ve been using my hearing aids less than usual because with Zoom I just wear headphones.

      • Matthew D Healy Says:

        Pro tip: the kind of wired headphones that are intended for music work great with most cell phones. The microphone built into the phone works just fine for my side of the call.

    • Leah Says:

      Not sure how close you are to southern Minnesota. I live an hour from the Iowa border, and I have a fabulous audiologist here that I work with. One of my coworkers recommended her.

  9. Hypatia103 Says:

    I am a speech pathologist – so my sister profession is audiology . I agree with AnonF – audiologists are highly trained medical professionals and will engage in some preventative care before prescribing a hearing aid. They also will be able to match the amplification to your hearing loss — if you have a high frequency loss, you only want to amplify those frequencies…amplifying the lower frequencies will be painfully loud. You could see an audiologist and find out you have a flat loss (same at all frequencies) then get a costco hearing aid…. but…. I guess you can think of hearing aids as contact lenses. Would you buy contacts (or perhaps reading glasses?) from the local drug store? I might in a pinch, but I’d definitely see an opthamologist annually and get new eyeglasses prescriptions periodically. Hearing aids are more expensive than glasses but also last longer for most folks. Some problems (e.g., hearing on the telephone, hearing in noise) can also be solved by hearing aids with particular settings — not likely available through costco. So….. If you want to find out if your audiologist is qualified ask if they are certified with ASHA (CCC-A) and/or Triple A. Ensure they are licensed in your state. Many university clinics can offer a more reasonable price in trade for training students/provide cutting edge access to technology and counseling. And your insurance may cover both visits and aids if you have a plan that deals with those sorts of things.

  10. Leah Says:

    I have a hearing aid. I just wear one in my bad ear. I had a lot of infections as a kid that damaged my hearing. I highly recommend seeing an audiologist, especially for the first one. My one hearing aid (resound brand) cost something like $1,250. For the first year, I went in either monthly or every other month to get it adjusted, and that was all included in the price. I go in yearly now. Also included are the supplies I need, other than batteries. She gave me a bag for everything, a travel box, a special drying box (turns out moisture is a big issue with hearing aids), the extra pieces I need (like wax protection rings, the “dome” or piece that fits into the ear, etc), and cleaning tools.

    I’ve been really happy with having a hearing aid. I had multiple surgeries to fix my hearing. They worked somewhat, but this is much less intense than having surgery.

    My favorite part is that I have three settings. I have normal, crowded place, and music. My audiologist added the music setting once I complained of getting some feedback/weird noises when singing or playing my instrument. The crowd one seems to tamp down background noise and is good in restaurants. I literally cried when I first put it in at how much better I could hear. I don’t have to turn the TV up as loud, and I can generally hear in restaurants.

    I think it’s worth spending the money, especially at first, to work with one person who is highly trained in providing the care.

  11. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Wow, Grumpy Nation is so knowledgeable and helpful (even when the Grumpies themselves aren’t…)! Thank you everyone!

  12. Lady E Says:

    I have an Ask the Grumpies question for a future post:

    I would love to read your review of Bridgerton on Netflix! I would be here for a full breakdown of your thoughts. I just binged the whole season, and am wondering how the show compares to the books (if you’ve read them)? Are the books worth my time if I need my next Bridgerton fix?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Um… I am not aware of Bridgerton?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh, it’s Julia Quinn… We have read some of her stuff. Some of it is better than others…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ok, looking through: First, a question for you. How much attempted rape is there in the Netflix series?

      Julia Quinn tends to do beginnings well and does not stick the ending in her novels. It”s like she’s writing for a deadline and doesn’t have a great editor. Like that horse drawing meme.

      • Lady E Says:

        There’s a scene that is rape-y (episode 6, I think?). The couple in question are not great communicators in general (of course, or there’s no plot at all) and about sex, so there are some other ways that sex is approached that are somewhat dubious (IMO) as well. I know you guys read a lot of Regency romance, so I would be interested in your take, if you’re interested in checking out the show.

        I thought the Netflix series did a good job of tying up loose ends in the plot while teasing us with other characters so that we understand there’s more story to tell. Leaves the viewer wanting a second season, for sure. :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think the really good regency authors don’t rely on lack of communication for plot (try Courtney Milan! She’s brilliant at having actual plots and conflicts that sensible people could have.). I tend to think “if only they’d talked this book would have ended on page 3” tropes as being kind of lazy unless there’s an actual good reason for them not to talk (like someone might die, or he suspects her of being a French spy, that sort of thing). The good stuff that’s out now is full of consent! That’s probably what made me actually start reading romance novels after decades of disliking them. I still dislike most of the romances with sex in them written before say, 1990, and many of them written in the 1990s as well. Consent is sexy!

        We’ll put the question up in a few weeks and Grumpy Nation will be able to weigh in if they’ve watched the series.

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