By Frederick Lopez, Ph.D.
I came of age in the 1960s, so it is with some nostalgia that I borrow from a then-popular album by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – the Sounds of Silence — to help title my blog. Although I will not “officially” enter the ranks of older adults until later this academic year when I celebrate my 65th birthday, over the past few years, the reality of my own aging has become increasingly self-evident. In particular, during this time, I became painfully aware that my hearing had substantially declined. Losing that capacity is difficult for anyone, but especially so, if your work, like mine, requires regular and sustained conversations with others. I already knew from my professional reading that 1 in 4 Americans between 65 and 74 years of age has a significant and disabling hearing impairment … but I didn’t want to be part of that statistic…was I already an older adult?
During the early stages of my hearing loss, I learned to compensate by paying more careful attention to others’ non-verbal behaviors, such as their lip and eye movements, as well as to those fragments of their sounds that I could discern, in order to determine if they had just asked me a question or made a declarative statement, and then to make my best guess as to what it was. More times than not, I found myself hoping that what I had just heard was a simple declarative comment that, even if completely undecipherable to my failing ears, would require no more than an “approving” head nod response (followed by some rapid private cognition as to how I could gracefully exit the conversation as soon as possible). In short, my listening became more deliberate and effortful, and I got pretty good at often correctly surmising the gist of what I was hearing; however, I also knew that, with each new conversation, with each new utterance, the odds of my misreading someone’s communication were increasing. Family members had already made repeated note of my hearing deficit and urged me to get hearing aids, but I resisted, unwilling (or, perhaps better said, unready) to accept my loss. Yet, slowly, the growing sounds of silence in my daily life began redirecting my effortful listening, not to others, but inwardly, to the voice of my own ambivalence…
The turning point occurred this past summer when I visited my daughter, son-in-law, and my two grandchildren at their home in Florida. Toward the end of that visit, my four-year-old grandson, Isaac, excitedly rushed up to me while I was relaxing on the living room sofa. He looked very intent on telling me something important, and, at first, he positioned his face only a few inches from my own. But then, just as quickly, he broke eye contact (depriving me of my visual cues) and he began making low, soft sounds while fixing this gaze on a small toy he held in his hands. I couldn’t make out a single word he was saying. After a few more seconds, he stopped and looked up expectantly to me for some kind of response. My heart sank as I had no idea how to respond. I tried the “approving head nod” strategy in the hopes of keeping him engaged, but it didn’t work … Isaac looked momentarily puzzled and then scampered off to start a conversation with someone else. And then it hit me … unless I accepted my loss and my need for hearing aids, I was jeopardizing my relationship with my grandson … I would not be able to understand him … and he would not come to know me as someone who did.
About the Author
Frederick G. Lopez is a Professor in the Counseling Psychology Program at the University of Houston. His research has generally focused on the study of how attachment relationships (i.e., relationships with parents and intimate peers) influence the psychosocial adjustment and development of adolescents and young adults. However, more recently, he is extending attachment theory to the study of older adults and working with one of his former students to develop and validate a self-report measure of attachment security that is appropriate for this population.