NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly Talks About Living With Hearing Loss

From a Washington Post story by Katherine Ellison headlined “NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks about living with hearing loss”:

The ability to listen is essential for a journalist — and also for a mother of teenagers. Yet in her early 40s, while juggling both roles, veteran NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly realized that she was going deaf. Kelly, now 51 and a co-host of NPR’s daily newsmagazine “All Things Considered,” writes about the toll of her hearing loss — and her strategies for coping — in a wide-ranging memoir set to publish in April: “It. Goes. So. Fast. The Year of No Do-Overs.”

About 36 million adults in the United States have some hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. This month, Kelly sat down with The Washington Post for a conversation, fielding questions through her Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids.

Q: How and when did you first realize you were losing your hearing?

Kelly: For many years I felt like everyone mumbled all the time. I couldn’t hear the words to songs. But I routinely passed the hearing checks. … Then one day I was doing a book tour for my first book and I couldn’t hear the questions from the audience. Shortly afterwards, I scheduled a full audiologist work-up.

In one test, I had to repeat words spoken to me. When I couldn’t see the doctor’s lips moving, it turned out I was missing 70 percent of what was said. That was 10 years ago. I got my hearing aids shortly afterwards.

I’m grateful for them, and particularly for the Bluetooth technology that can pipe a phone call directly into my ear. But it’s not like putting on glasses. They’re uncomfortable, and I still struggle to make out every word. It’s kind of like a foreign language you speak very well but not completely, so you’re always a little behind. That’s what English is like for me now, and my hearing loss is continuing.

Just last week, I was in a hot yoga class and not wearing my hearing aids because the moisture can damage them when you sweat. Two women were talking, and I couldn’t tell if they were speaking English. This was the first time that has happened. I thought, “Okay, it’s going to keep evolving and I’m just going to have to figure it out.”

Q: You write in your book that you believe your hearing loss is genetic — your father was nearly deaf — but do you wonder if anything else contributed?

Kelly: I can’t say for sure. I spent a lot of time in war zones and on helicopters, and I went to concerts and probably cranked my Walkman too loud. … Also during one of my pregnancies I got pretty sick with an ear infection and they wouldn’t let me take antibiotics because of the possible effect on the child. I’ve always wondered: Did I do some damage? My doctor says maybe. It’s really hard to know.

Q: What strategies help you the most, on and off the job?

Kelly: I’ve gotten very not-shy about asking people to repeat themselves or speak louder when I’m interviewing someone in person. In a restaurant, I’ll always ask for the seat that faces the wall, or in the corner.

I have not yet explored the whole world of apps on the phone, where you can aim your phone at the person you’re talking to and words come up on the screen. If my hearing continues to worsen, I may well explore that. When I see people doing that in a restaurant, I think, “Good for you! You’re doing what you need to do.”

When I’m anchoring, I never have trouble, because the NPR studio is soundproof — there’s no background noise to distract you, and I wear great headphones that I can crank loud.

It’s harder when I do interviews from home or when I’m out in the field because we have to route the calls through the main office. This has taken more work from everyone else, and I obviously feel bad about that. So far, there has always been a workaround. Still I’ve thought more than once about how long can I do this? I’m good at my job, but I don’t want to be a burden. The only thing I know how to do is keep being honest and asking if there are other ways we can try. I’m immensely grateful for the support of my colleagues.

Q: It’s impressive that you’re so open about this.

Kelly: I’m happy to talk about this stuff because there’s such a stigma about hearing aids that there isn’t about glasses. Every 40-, 50- or 60-year-old I know walks around fishing out their reading glasses, but it’s not the same with hearing aids. I felt the stigma when I was first told to get them — I thought, “I’m not old!”

As more and more people wear AirPods all the time and as hearing aids get smaller — they’re not those giant orthotics your grandmother wore — who cares? Why not get them? I wish I had gotten them sooner because I missed a lot.

Q: The most heartbreaking part of your book for me was when you wrote about a morning when you couldn’t hear your teenage son …

Kelly: I wear hearing aids all day long, but often in the morning when I first go downstairs to make coffee I don’t have them in. The moment I described was one of many. I look up and see James and his lips are moving; he’s been talking to me, and I don’t know how long he’s been talking and I’m trying to catch every third or fourth word. Is he sharing some deep, profound thought or asking if there’s toast? At a certain point he gets exasperated and says: “Fine. Don’t worry, I’ll ask Dad,” and I’ll ask him one more time, but then he’s fed up.

The moment’s lost. I can’t get the most basic story my son’s trying to tell me, and my whole job is to get people to tell me their stories. And there have been so many moments like that. It must be incredibly frustrating for him, and it’s also frustrating for me.

Q: You titled your chapter about hearing loss: “Letting the Silence Play Out.” What did you mean?

Kelly: There’s an art and a skill and a grace to doing interviews, and one thing I’ve had to learn is to sometimes let the silence play out, to let the questions sit. It’s very uncomfortable, especially on live radio, if you ask the next question and they don’t immediately answer because they’re thinking about it. The instinct is to rush in and fill the space. But if you let it sit, it’s surprising how often the answer reveals itself as the most interesting part of the entire interview.

Similarly, I suppose with teenagers, the impulse or at least my impulse is always to be kind of rushing to fill the time or fill the space. … Now my instinct increasingly is just to sit with them and listen to them and be less bossy and hear what’s on their minds and take it in without any need to solve the problem, which is hard because you want to solve problems when you love these people.

Q: Given the genetic influence on your hearing loss, I’d imagine you’re keeping a close watch on your kids’ hearing.

Kelly: I will be hypervigilant for the signs that were there for me. I also tell them to get off of their phones and turn them down as much as they can. If it’s loud enough for me to hear, it’s probably too loud.

The number one thing in our control is we all walk around listening to things on our phones all the time. I’m constantly telling people I interview, because I can hear the echoes when their volume is up, can you turn your sound down to no louder than you absolutely need it? And it has occurred to me more than once that this would be good advice for all of us every day.

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