Jann Arden opens up about aging mom, caregiver guilt and hearing loss
Published Friday, May 20, 2016 7:36AM EDT
Jann Arden admits she didn’t notice the signs.
The Canadian singer-songwriter’s mother Joan had been losing interest in watching movies, an activity she once adored, she never wanted to listen to music anymore either, and she barely had anything to say around the dinner table.
It wasn’t like her, but Arden assumed her mother’s withdrawal was all part of the dementia she’d been suffering from for years.
“We just kept attributing everything to Alzheimer’s,” Arden told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “She was already feeling marginalized because she did realize she was forgetting things, and that was tough enough in itself.”
What Arden did notice was that her mother kept the TV awfully loud. When Arden would ask her if her hearing was okay, her mother always brushed away the question.
“Mum kept assuring me, ‘No, I can hear fine.’ And I kind of just took her word for it,” Arden says.
But a year and a half ago, at the urging of her mother’s hired caregivers, Arden took her mum to get her hearing checked. Those tests revealed the elder Arden was 70 per cent deaf in both ears.
That kind of hearing loss, says Toronto-based audiologist Marshall Chasin, is equivalent to putting in earplugs, diving underwater, and then trying to listen to the conversations of people on dry land.
Arden admits she was stunned. She realized her mother had been missing out on so much of what was happening around her but had somehow just been getting by. Joan was immediately fitted for hearing aids, which her daughter says, have been life-changing.
“The first day when we got them in, it was very emotional. She was like, ‘Oooooh!’,” Arden remembers.
Now, her mother is hearing things she hasn’t heard in years -- the sound of a clock ticking on the wall, the chirping of birds. She’s even learning to tune these sounds out because they sound so loud to her.
“I could crumple up a piece of paper and she’d be like, ‘Take it easy!’” Arden says with a laugh.
When the pair go for long, daily walks near their homes in Alberta with Arden’s dog Midi, her mother now hears everything around her.
Parenting the parent
What Arden has been left with though, is a sense of guilt for not having spotted her mom’s hearing loss earlier.
“I feel bad I didn’t clue in a decade ago. I just never thought it was a problem. I had never thought about it,” she says.
“It took someone else, I’m embarrassed to say, saying, ‘You know, you should really check your mum,’ for me to get her tested.”
Chasin says there’s no need for Arden to feel bad.
“One of the reasons Jann’s family didn’t notice it is because hearing loss is a very slow, gradual process, sometimes occurring over 20 or 30 years,” he said, adding it’s an invisible handicap with no obvious symptoms such as pain or blood coming out of the ears.
Still, Arden admits she feels guilt. But she’s learned there’s a lot of guilt in her new role as her mother’s primary caregiver.
It’s hard accepting their parenting roles have reversed and that Arden is now the one parenting her parent. Pain, guilt, fear – all of them come up, and it’s not something that get talked about a lot, Arden admits.
That’s in part why she has been so open about it all on Facebook and other social media. Arden has written often about both her mum and her father before he passed away last August, including one post in 2014 in which she talked about trying to stay calm as her parents struggled with repeatedly losing things because of dementia.
“I thought one afternoon, ‘I’m just going to write about this. Because I was scared’,” Arden remembers. “And my manager called me and he said, ‘Do you know what’s going on with your Facebook page?’”
To Arden’s surprise, the post earned more than 32,000 Likes and 4,600 comments from people saying they knew exactly what Arden was going through.
“It seemed to open this box of guilt that people have with parenting their parents,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how much I had in common with other people, Baby Boomers I guess, who all have aging parents.
“It really touched a nerve, so I thought I’d keep up with it.”
Arden now tries to talk about her role as caregiver to give voice to a life phase she says isn’t often talked about.
“I don’t want to overwhelm people and think I'm complaining about my troubles and woes. It’s just really about my journey with it,” she says.
Free hearing screening tests
These days, she wants people to think about hearing loss and getting their hearing tested. She’s acting as a spokesperson for a campaign by Duracell batteries called #StayConnected, which is offering free telephone-based screening tests.
The battery maker is offering the screenings until June 26, 2016 at 1-844-9-Duracell. The test asks callers to repeat sequences of numbers played against a noisy background, and can determine if someone needs further hearing tests.
Chasin says there are 3 million Canadians with hearing loss but 80 per cent of them are not treating it. That’s a shame, he says, because there are lots of hearing aids available, including some low-cost options called “hearables” for those with even mild hearing loss.
Arden urges anyone who thinks their hearing might be off but who doesn’t want to tell anyone should call the number and take the test, which is completely anonymous. It’s made a world of difference to her mother, she says.
“She sings to music and she comments about the sounds of birds. So for her, it was such a door that opened that had been shut for a long time.”