Don and I met during college Orientation in late July 1972. He was 18 and I was 17. Don was blind and I was heading in that direction. I have retinitis pigmentosa and had already lost my night vision. Don and I saw advantages to becoming roommates. He would teach me essential future blindness skills and, per his request, I would hide his bottle of Southern Comfort.
I started my university career with a serious problem. After the sun set, I could not find my way from my dorm in the northeast part of campus, to the dorm located on the southwest corner. This was terrible! The Freshman Girls Dorm was calling to me, and I was stuck. When it was dark, I wasn’t going anywhere.
In desperation, I bought a cheap wooden walking cane, which was way too short and only meant for appearing dapper. I tried to traverse the campus at night and only succeeded in walking with the slow and erratic gait of an inebriated toddler, slipping regularly off the sidewalk and looking very uncool.
Don was either embarrassed or took pity on me. He gave me my first white cane and tossed in some free mobility lessons. Before long, I was tap, tap, tapping my way to the girl’s dorm. My cane technique wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t elegant, but it worked. My delicate male ego was saved.
What I recognized in Don’s kindness was the utility of being prepared for inevitable changes in my vision. I learned Braille before it was absolutely needed and I mastered cane travel. I could do square roots on an abacus and I learned to love audio books before the lights completely dimmed. Because of my friend, I was fully prepared for the visual changes that followed.
Ah, had I only applied those lessons to the rest of my life. I subsequently failed to prepare myself for a different sensory change. Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly aware that my wife of nearly forty years was beginning to mumble. Poor lady. I got used to saying that I could not hear her and that it would help if she spoke directly to me. Still, I could generally make sense of her words if I was in close proximity and everything else was quiet.
Amazingly, I noticed that other people in stores, at church and definitely in restaurants were frequently garbling their words too. Even Don was mumbling, but I could write that off on his age, or the wine we had been sharing for decades. I was surprised that people no longer articulated clearly.
On the off chance that the distorted audio quality of the world might have something to do with me, I visited an ear doctor, who then suggested that I go see an audiologist. At least that is what I think he said.
The hearing test I was given indicated that I could no longer hear sounds in the upper registers. And, lower pitched noises had also been impacted. Realizing that I might be a candidate for hearing aids, I reached out to people my own age and asked if they knew anything about them. A whole lot of them did. A whole lot of them already wore hearing aids.
I called a dear friend in California who also happens to be blind. She knows a lot about recent technology and I asked her what she might have heard about hearing aids. I should have known. She is six months older than me, so of course she already wore a pair. She loved them! She wore the Starkey Halo hearing aids and her husband loved them too. He no longer needs to repeat himself incessantly.
With her hearing aids, she could once again hear the full range of sounds and voices that had slowly faded away. However, our conversation focused on something even more important. What we discussed the most was how her hearing aids were always connected to her iPhone. VoiceOver was sent to her hearing aids. Music, email and messages were all audible through her hearing aids. Everything she did with her iPhone was sent via Bluetooth to her Made for iPhone hearing aids. Her hearing aids were discrete and hidden away. No more AirPods or wires hanging from her head. She could hear both the world and her iPhone anywhere and at any time.
I began to hope that the connectivity would stretch even further. I asked my friend if she was also able to attach her Apple Watch to the hearing aids, but that did not work. Even so, she could much more easily hear her watch and that was good enough for her.
My audiologist and I are well matched. She is smart and willing to put up with me. Very helpful personal characteristics. She is also very likeable. All I wanted from her was total restoration of normal hearing and perfect connectivity to my iPhone and my Apple Watch. That seemed simple enough. However, she wanted to focus on the real voices around me, like hearing my wife and friends. What? I wanted my hearing aids to connect seamlessly to my iPhone and Apple Watch so that I could listen to books, phone calls, music, podcasts and my writing apps without ever having to pick up AirPods, BeatsX headphones or my Bose Frames. I was ready to become the Bionic Man or assimilated into the Borg collective. I am Morgan, I am Geek.
She promised that we would work on both ambient sound and my gadgets. By pure chance, I was outfitted with my first pair of hearing aids on Don's 65th birthday. That first set, a demo pair for me to evaluate, were the Widex Evoke 440 Fusion 2 hearing aids. She offered to let me try them out for a couple weeks and she did connect them to my iPhone. It was amazing! I had no idea we had songbirds in my neighborhood, and I was surprised by the symphony of crickets at night. I also discovered that my wife was suddenly so much easier to understand.
However, I was underwhelmed by how this particular pair of Widex hearing aids performed with my iPhone 8. Latency was a problem and so was the occasional clipping off of initial syllables when VoiceOver began to speak. I found myself wishing for my very responsive AirPods. It was obvious, early on, that I would not be happy with hearing aids that made me wait for those grueling fractions of a second from when I interacted with the iPhone screen until I would belatedly hear VoiceOver. I also found that all of my Bluetooth keyboards interfered with my hearing aids, causing a significant amount of crackling. The final nail was driven in by the less than stellar accessibility of the Widex iPhone app. These Widex hearing aids were not going to cut it.
Ever patient and pleasant, my audiologist loaned me a pair of Made for iPhone Oticon hearing aids. This set was magnificent from the start. I could hear voices even more clearly in really noisy situations. I also enjoyed an excellent sense of where sounds were originating, which was critical to my safe mobility. And, latency was no longer an issue with my iPhone. The app was reasonably accessible and I felt like a man with super hearing. Over the multi-week trial, I heard that Oticon had just introduced a new version of the very aids I was wearing, so I took a chance. I purchased their latest model and fell in love when they arrived. They are the "Oticon Opn S 1 miniRITE" hearing aids.
My Oticon hearing aids are great with my iPhone, but no one could tell me how to also connect my Apple Watch. When I first received my new hearing aids, I asked my audiologist to please contact the company and see if I could establish an internal technical contact at Oticon with whom I could directly communicate. I thought that my 30 years in university academic and research computing might be helpful to both Oticon and me. I know my audiologist gave it her best shot. Unfortunately, all Oticon offered was a marketing contact. No thanks, I can read sales brochures all by myself.
Even without their help, I was on a mission. I found an accessory sold by Oticon called the "Connect Clip." It is one way to let other Bluetooth devices talk to your Oticon hearing aids. I could not find any reference or documentation suggesting it would work with the Apple Watch, but I was desperate. I shelled out the $225 to order this tiny little clip-on device that might or might not be useful for something. When it arrived, I picked it up from my audiologist and tried to connect it to my Apple Watch. In short order, I could hear my watch through the hearing aids. If I immediately then did something on my iPhone, I could hear it, too. Once connected, I can just go through my day listening to both my iPhone and my Apple Watch, all through my hearing aids. During the day, I carry the Connect Clip in my front pants pocket. At night, I recharge the Connect Clip with a micro USB cable. The Connect Clip uses LEDs to indicate its state, but I have memorized which buttons need pressing and for how long. It works. I have also found a way to hook up a spare iPhone running the latest iOS Beta software and use both iPhones with my hearing aids at the same time. Life is sweet.
As with any technology, the Oticon hearing aids are not perfect. Bluetooth keyboard interference is still a problem, but rebooting the hearing aids usually quiets the crackling. That takes about 15 seconds. And, if you just turn off your Bluetooth keyboard, the problem disappears. There are other times when only the left or right hearing aid will be communicating with my iPhone. This generally self-corrects quickly, but I created a little Siri shortcut that turns off and then immediately turns on Bluetooth services. It seems to help. The bottom line for me is that I hear the real world considerably better and am truly pleased with the hearing aid connectivity with both my iPhone and my Apple Watch.
I go out to dinner with friends every week and I can now hear all of them. I thoroughly enjoy my reading, writing and research when listening to my iPhone through my hearing aids. With all the work that I make my hearing aids perform, I still get four full days of hearing aid use on each battery.
I also discovered just how beautifully my old roommate still played his guitar. After I received my new Oticon hearing aids, Don's music was even crisper, fuller and clearer. Simply wonderful.
I've heard that hearing loss is often just another part of getting older. I would have liked to be a bit more aware of the change before I could no longer easily hear my spouse, but it sure is nice to be fully engaged again. Some of the changes that happen when we age cannot be easily addressed, but hearing better is one where there is such a delightful and rewarding fix. I enjoy my hearing aids. Sounds good to me.
As was our regular custom, my wife and I visited Don at his nearby home on June 8 this year and spent the evening watching an old "Kung Fu" TV episode, enjoying some Whitney Houston, reminiscing about his late wife, and then I listened to my spouse and Don singing with the Marty Robbins recording of "El Paso." Shortly after we left that evening, Don McDowell gently passed away in his sleep. I wish that everyone could enjoy, as I did, such a glorious friendship for nearly 47 years. Life is best when you can share it with friends.
I have written 21 other blogs for AppleVis, including "Off My Chest: Confessions Of An Apple Watch Lover," "Cutting Loose: Unleashing The Power Of My iPhone 8" and "Down To Earth: My First Hundred Days With AirPods."
I would love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts below.