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Until recently, John Laitinen didn’t like Christmas.
The Castle Rock man suffers from hearing loss, possibly because of his six years as a U.S. Army engineer or his later career working on race cars, both involving loud work environments. Whatever the reason, he could no longer hear Christmas music as in years past.
This Christmas was different.
A week before the holiday, Laitinen, 76, learned Accent on Hearing, a clinic in Castle Rock specializing in hearing loss and fitting people with hearing aids, was giving him a pair of refurbished hearing aids.
“I was stunned,” he said.
Going forward, Laitinen will be able to hear the Christmas music he’d come to miss. He’ll be able to clearly hear his wife, Debbie, who said his hearing loss affected their daily lives.
“I don’t have to yell at the top of my lungs, ‘Dinner’s ready,’” Debbie said.
Ultimately, Laitinen said, the hearing aids have given him “a new lease on life.”
A giving tradition
The Laitinens are but one family who has received such a donation from Accent on Hearing. Each Christmas, the company gives trade-in hearing aids to people who cannot afford them.
Donations made around Christmas, like the one to Laitinen, are part of the company’s “HEAR for the Holidays” program, which started a few years ago as a way to give back to the community, founder and director Joanne LaPorta said. The company also donates to people outside of the holiday season and connects them with programs helping people in need of hearing aids, which cost anywhere $1,500 to more than $6,000 and are not typically covered by health insurance.
Accent on Hearing announced in November it worked alongside the HearStrong Foundation to help a woman who lost her hearing during cancer treatments receive a new pair of hearing aids.
And years ago, they helped Memphis Oldham, now 13, also from Castle Rock, upgrade from an old pair to a newer, more advanced set.
Children typically need the more advanced, and consequently more expensive, hearing aids because of their active lifestyles, LaPorta said. To help Oldham, who was born nearly deaf, Accent on Hearing referred him and his family to The HearStrong Foundation, which negotiates with manufacturers to donate hearing aids to people in need.
Oldham had relied on analog hearing aids, which only amplify sounds, for several years. As a newborn, doctors initially told his parents his hearing loss was so significant hearing aids wouldn’t help, that he would never speak and would need to learn sign language.
When he was 4 months old, they decided to give hearing aids a try anyway.
“The second they put them on him Memphis’ eyes started blinking and we knew he could hear,” his mother Lynnea said. “I cried like a big old baby.”
The pair was old, but they stuck with what they could get until LaPorta helped the family get Memphis digital hearing aids when he was 6 years old through Hearstrong. Unlike analog hearing aids, digital varieties don’t simply amplify sounds, according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They instead convert sounds into digital sound waves to create an exact replication of the noises around someone. Digital hearing aids also have more options for programming and can eliminate more background noise.
“The difference was just amazing,” Lynnea said.
Now he can hear crickets, chirping birds and frogs. He can tell which direction sounds come from and no longer hears static in the background like he did with the analog hearing aids.
The help from Accent on Hearing was crucial, Lynnea said, because insurance rarely covers hearing aids.
“You pray every day they don’t break down,” Lynnea said of his analog hearing aids.
How many pairs the company donates to community members depends on how many nominations it receives for HEAR for the Holidays and how many refurbished hearing aids it collects throughout the year, typically from other patients who are upgrading their set.
It’s a big deal to the families, staff said, explaining families often don’t have the thousands of dollars needing to purchase hearing aids.
“Insurance companies follow Medicare guidelines and Medicare doesn’t see hearing aids as durable medical equipment,” said Elizabeth Martinez, a doctor of audiology at Accent on Hearing. “Medicare doesn’t want to cover something that would need to be fixed or replaced.”
The cost can create a barrier between patients and the hearing aids best suited to their needs. The devices work on a prescription basis, and must be tailored to a patient’s level of hearing loss. Fitting someone with hearing aids involves several checkups and specialized equipment to evaluate a person’s quality of hearing while using hearing aids, and if they need to be adjusted.
The more expensive hearing aids are more technologically advanced and geared toward individuals with active lifestyles, such as children or business professionals who attend numerous meetings a day, Martinez said. “Hearing aids are not a one-size-fits-all.”
The difference hearing aids make isn’t as simple as hearing more clearly, staff said. Untreated hearing loss often leads to more serious conditions.
“Think of walking around with ear plugs and being in a situation where people were trying to talk to you,” Martinez said. “You’re trying to pay so much attention to what they say because you can’t hear them, to a point where people stop wanting to repeat themselves and where you stop wanting to listen. So, you run into depression and isolation.”
Prolonged isolation and depression can eventually contribute to dementia, LaPorta said, although a person’s overall quality of life declines in numerous ways.
“You can get depressed, become anxious, you can become nervous because you might not be able to hear sirens coming,” she said. “If you’re not hearing very well you stop doing things like going to a restaurant because you can’t follow a conversation.”
Hearing the ‘sounds of life’
Laitinen noticed his hearing loss becoming more significant in October, he said. Eating at a restaurant, for example, meant straining to hear those around him against a sea of background noise.
“All it would sound liked was a big wave, gibberish, so it really took the joy out of going anywhere,” he said.
Before receiving his donated pair, Laitinen was fitted with a temporary pair of hearing aids. Putting them on was “like magic,” he said. He didn’t want to give them back. Then he learned the pair he was testing cost $3,000 each.
“Six thousand dollars is a lot of money. I didn’t have it,” he said, “didn’t want to spend it.”
Which is why HEAR for the Holidays can make such a difference in people’s lives, company staff say.
“It’s eye-opening, often times it’s dramatic,” LaPorta said. “They’re hearing things they haven’t really heard, like a clock ticking or a fan blowing. It’s not always these beautiful sounds. Sometimes it’s just the sounds of life.”
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