An estimated one in 10 Canadians — and more than half of everyone over 65 — will experience some degree of hearing loss. The solution for many is a hearing aid, but 80 per cent of those who need them, don’t use them — mostly because of the high cost.
The burden is greatest in B.C. because the province is among the worst when it comes to providing provincial funding or financial assistance.
The Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario cover all costs for young people under 21 and provide substantial help to seniors. Alberta and Yukon aren't far behind.
But B.C. brings up the rear with Manitoba, providing almost no funding for those with hearing loss.
Financial assistance for hearing aids is only available to some children under 3½ years of age, adults seeking work or in danger of losing their jobs due to hearing loss and seniors who meet a narrow set of eligibility requirement.
Medical Services Plan doesn't cover hearing aids and subsidies are available only if you’re a veteran, an RCMP officer, First Nations or have a valid WorkSafe claim.
That means most citizens are left to buy the pricey devices themselves, and the prices for the same hearing loss assessment will vary widely depending on the shop.
Based on one hearing loss assessment, Vancouver's Mainland Hearing said the appropriate hearing aid for one ear would cost anywhere from $695 to $4,000 depending on features.
Costco was more transparent and precise, estimating $950 to $1,400 for the same assessment. Beltone quoted $3,000 to $6,500 — for aids for two ears — based on the same hearing assessment.
Too pricey for senior
For seniors on a fixed income like Don MacArthur, 73, who suffers from hearing loss after working in mines as a young man, prices like that have put hearing aids out of reach.
"It's either pay or do without. So I've chosen up ‘til now to do without,” says MacArthur.
But anyone suffering from hearing loss knows there’s another cost to not getting a hearing aid — social and emotional isolation.
“I like to be involved in the community, and the last couple of years I've had occasion where I've sat in the corner and been quiet, like a deaf old man and it's a little frustrating," says MacArthur.
Sandra Baker, an audiologist with the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, says the B.C. government needs to do more for those who can't afford a hearing aid themselves.
"It's the difference between paying some bills or having hearing aids," she says. "I think it's terrible we can't access those services in British Columbia."
Michael Currie, the vice president of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Awareness Association is even more blunt, saying, "I don't think that they are even there for us at all."
No provincial funds, says minister
But B.C.’s Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid says the province has a limited amount of cash to spend and hearing aids are one more thing the government can't afford to cover.
“I recognize it's difficult, but I also recognize every day in the ministry we have finite resources and many, many pressures on them, including this one."
Fortunately Don MacArthur has found a solution. The Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing runs a program called Lend an Ear, which takes donated hearing aids, refurbishes them, and gives them to those in need for $140.
But the wait lists are long. MacArthur had to wait a year and a half for his to be fitted, but now that he's got one, he's looking forward to stepping out once again.
"I want to go to a movie because I haven't been able to enjoy a movie for years," he says.