Older womans hearing aid

Challenging assumptions makes a lot of sense

This World Elder Abuse Awareness Day we invited several people to write a short piece on the theme of Equality at Every Age. Andrew James recounts a story of his Nan and her right to hear.

Last updated: 16 June 2022

I was very close to my maternal grandmother, even though she lived six hours away from my city, in a small country town. We spoke by phone most weeks, and I visited regularly. I was very lucky to have her in my life until I was 45 years old. I can’t believe she has been gone for 10 years. I still miss her.

Nan lived at home, alone but content, until her early nineties. She loved lawn bowls, reading, the occasional shandy and her dogs. She was involved with her community, in fact I would often find her in her front yard talking with a neighbour or a friend who was walking by and she loved listening to the radio and watching the evening news on TV.

I remember a period when Nan’s hearing aids were playing up and causing her grief. It was getting harder to speak with her on the phone, so I had a conversation with my aunt about what needed to be done to improve Nan’s hearing. 

Essentially, I learned, it would involve several trips to a much bigger town 100 kilometres away to see specialists who could fix the problem and then monitor the results. The prognosis was good, but it was going to take some time and effort to make it happen.

My aunt, concerned about being able to make all these trips with Nan, said that she hadn’t been able to hear well for a while.

All the more reason to act, I thought.

Then my aunt said, ‘She’s 90 years old. She doesn’t need to hear anymore, and I do everything for her, anyway.’

I was taken aback. A decision had been made in the moment, like we were deciding to dispose of some old clothes. It was as if Nan’s needs, her rights, were irrelevant. The ramifications of what my aunt had said hit me: the inconvenience of fixing the problem outweighed Nan’s basic human rights. We hadn’t even asked Nan what she wanted.

Stunned, I replied, ‘I don’t think we have the right to decide that. Nan deserves to hear as much you and I do. If you can’t take her to the appointments, I will.’

It was a tough—and, at times, sensitive—conversation. My aunt had always taken the lead in making decisions about Nan’s welfare; she lived close by and did much of Nan’s day-to-day support. I lived 500 kilometres away, so at a practical level I was unlikely to be the one making the trips to the specialists.

Still, I firmly believed it was our responsibility to fix the problem, not to pretend it wasn’t there or—more accurately—to assume that being able to hear at 90 years of age was less valuable.

My aunt realised the import of what she had said. We discussed the options with Nan. And in the end, we all agreed to make the trips.

With Nan’s hearing aids soon fixed, she was again able to join in on conversations, watch the evening TV news, chat with her neighbours and enjoy the sounds of everyday life. And, delightfully for me, she could once again talk for longer on the phone. Her hearing wasn’t ever great again, but it was better, enough that she could be more connected and engaged with the world around her.

The experience of safeguarding Nan’s hearing highlighted to me just how readily we can exert power and influence over older, more isolated members of our families—people we love and care greatly about. I saw how easily an older person’s rights can be ignored, dismissed or eroded, how simple and expedient decisions can dramatically affect another person’s quality of life.

It also reminded me how vulnerable any of us can be as we get older and how important it is to have multiple, close connections who know our lives and how we want to live. These are the people who will be able to challenge potentially disastrous decisions made by other people who think they are doing the right thing—or who aren’t really thinking clearly at all.

My aunt made a quick call that her 90-year-old mother didn’t really need to hear anymore; all the trips back and forth to the specialists with her would be a huge bother, and for what?

For what is exactly the point. In Nan’s case, the ability to hear properly. But more than that: the ability to converse, interact with others, stay informed, take part in her local community—in short, continue to live life the way she wanted to and enjoy the things she enjoyed.

It got me thinking. What other assumptions do we regularly make about older people that are simply dismissive, plainly wrong or downright dangerous?

Author: Andrew James

If you or someone you know needs help tackling elder abuse, start at compass.info or call 1800 ELDERHelp (1800 353 374).

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