by Neil Bauman, Ph.D. with Landis Lundquist
The HearMe Dear is a modern version of the old conversation tubes that were commonly used by hard of hearing people in the last half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century.
A conversation tube is basically just a flexible tube that is flared at the mouthpiece end and narrowed to an earpiece at the other end. I have a number of them in The Hearing Aid Museum. In spite of my severe hearing loss, I can hear even soft speech if the person talks with their lips within half an inch from the bell. Not bad for a device that doesn’t use batteries, electronics or any modern technology!
Just because a thing is “old” doesn’t make it bad. Some of those old conversation tubes were wonderfully engineered Conversely, just because something is new doesn’t automatically make it superior to what came before. True, sometimes they work better, but sometimes they work worse, and sometimes they just work differently.
Conversation tubes are a case in point. Those old conversation tubes worked very well when used properly. Yes, they were large and cumbersome compared to modern, tiny, invisible hearing aids. However, they produced totally natural speech sounds. That is why some elderly people, who cannot understand much with modern digital hearing aids, hear very well when using conversation tubes.
Landis Lundquist discovered this for himself when he was trying to converse with his elderly, hard of hearing mother. Here is Landis’ story and how he came to produce the HearMe Dear modern conversation tube.
“Necessity is the mother of invention”. So also is frustration. The frustration grew out of my experience in caring for my elderly mother who sufferers from severe hearing loss and has become increasingly isolated. She has a hearing aid, but when I visited her, either the battery was dead, her hearing aid was clogged, out of adjustment or had fallen under the dresser. Besides, she just wasn’t comfortable wearing her hearing aid.
As time went on, my frustration in not being able to freely converse with my mother increased and I began looking for a solution.
I discovered that other baby-boomers had the same problem. Like my mother, their elderly parents were often isolated by hearing loss, in spite of their expensive hearing aids.
Our family visits with grandma became awkward. Each visit was an hour-long attempt to communicate comfort and love through non-verbal means—massaging her back, holding hands, or, best of all, bringing our miniature schnauzer. We cupped our hands over her hearing aid and asked loudly, “Mom, can you hear me? Do you like the puppy?” She ’d shake her head. She couldn’t understand our words.
I tried battery powered assistive devices. Unfortunately, she didn’t like wearing ear buds, nor did she like ear phones in her hair. Thus, a bunch of electronic devices ended up in a tangled mass of cords in a dresser drawer. Modern electronics and my 90-year-old mother just didn’t get along!
As my wife was sitting with her one day, I took a piece of paper, rolled it into a cone and stuck the small end into her ear. My wife looked unimpressed. “Hey, it’s worth a try,” I said with a shrug. “Mom, can you hear me?”
“Oh yes. I didn’t know you were here!” Her eyes widened and she turned toward me smiling. My little paper ear trumpet worked!
Somehow the sound of my voice parted the haze of dementia and awakened something in her mind. We had a little talk. These talks continued in the weeks and months that remained.
No doubt a trained audiologist could have helped in this situation. A technical solution probably existed. But given our particular set of circumstances, we had run out of affordable options, except for the most simple, almost ridiculous option which we were fortunate to discover—or more accurately, rediscover.
Ear trumpets have been around for 400 years! A Google search revealed a myriad of devices used up until the early twentieth century when acoustic hearing aids fell by the wayside as “new-fangled” electric, and later electronic, hearing aids began to dominate the market.
Conversation tubes were invented about 1820. Dr. Neil, the owner/curator of The Hearing Aid Museum, encouraged me to design a modern version, because “they work amazingly well.”
Being a manufacturer and designer by trade, I had the equipment to turn out various-shaped speaking bells and ear pieces to achieve the best results. Dr. Neil tested several of our designs and compared their amplification characteristics with conversation tubes of bygone years and reported the results to me. Even with today’s better materials, it was hard to beat the amplification of the best antiques, especially in the higher frequencies where it counts the most for intelligibility. But good amplification in the mid-range seemed good enough for most situations.
My son, a business school graduate, encouraged me to “let the customer design the product”—so I did. I produced a number of prototypes and handed them out to nursing homes, families with elderly persons with severe hearing losses and caregivers who made rounds with the elderly. My design evolved into a 48-inch flexible tube with a speaking “bell” at one end and an ear piece with a handle at the other. The ear piece seals the ear to eliminate background noise. It’s 4-foot length provides for conversation across a table or for chair-to-chair use.
In a few months I developed a marketable product that I named the “HearMe Dear”, since this device connects us with those dear to us.
Feed-back from users of the HearMe Dear has been positive. For example, one man, whose mother had been isolated for some time because of her hearing loss, reported, “Finally, I can have full-bodied conversations again! My mother put it to her ear and I spoke into the other end and oh my goodness—she lit up like a school girl getting an unexpected gift! She could hear perfectly!”
Another person explained, “I wanted you to know that we used the “HearMe Dear” with my mother-in-law and her husband at a recent party. Both of them have hearing aids. We found that the HearMe Dear worked both with their hearing aids or as a stand-alone device. My in-laws told me that in a large group their hearing aids do not help them much because they pick up too much background noise. The HearMe Dear largely eliminated the background noise.”
My accountant told me that she hadn’t spoken with her father-in-law for two years, so I gave her a HearMe Dear to try. She emailed back, “I used the HearMe Dear to converse with my father-in-law over Christmas. Since I have a softer feminine voice, the HearMe Dear has actually been the only way he has understood what I said apart from reading my lips.”
Since the HearMe Dear is made of plastic it is waterproof and easy to keep clean. Thus, you could use it in remote or primitive care points where hearing aids are not feasible.
You can use the HearMe Dear in a number of different hearing situations. For example, it is good in situations where you want to maintain confidentiality. By holding the mouthpiece close to your lips, very little sound escapes.
A pregnant mother could even use it to speak to her unborn child by placing the earpiece on her tummy.
Furthermore, since the HearMe Dear is inexpensive, people that cannot afford hearing aids can obtain one and use it to hear in one-to-one situations.
Finally, when you have your mouth close to the bell and hold the earpiece tight against your ear, it cuts out most background noise. As a result, even hearing people may find it useful to converse in noisy environments such as a factory floor, in an airplane or at a loud concert. You may not realize it, but in years gone by, hearing people actually used “Railway Conversation Tubes” to converse in noisy train cars.
Update October, 2018
Unfortunately, the HearMe Dear is no longer in production and thus is now permanently unavailable. Another good idea bites the dust.