Sensory Challenge – Sound

Part 2: Sound and Hearing

Our ability to hear is fundamental to being able to understand those around us and to communicate with others. This is not the whole story though. If we became deaf there are ways of overcoming this loss. But what if our ability not to hear but to filter out the noise around us was impaired or lost? This is a whole new challenge.

I am reminded of a few words from the lyrics from Jethro Tull’s 1972 masterpiece ‘As Thick As A Brick

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.

My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.

I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.

Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.

So you ride yourselves over the fields and

You make all your animal deals and

Your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.

And the sand-castle virtues are all swept away in

The tidal destruction

The moral melee.

The elastic retreat rings the close of play as the last wave uncovers

The newfangled way.

But your new shoes are worn at the heels and

Your suntan does rapidly peel and

Your wise men don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.


I think these lyrics speak volumes and I find an ever increasing relevance to life today.

My hearing is probable as good as it ever was, I can hear a pin drop on the moon (the Dark Side ), but my ability to filter out background noise is vastly diminished. This problem seems to be shared by most people I know who are living with dementia.

I will recount one incident that characterises this issue and resonates with many of my fellows.

Imagine a quiet intimate dinner in your favourite restaurant. Nice food, nice wine and the one that you love. The restaurant is pleasant, the staff are prompt, friendly and understanding.  Its late spring and the weather is perfect. It’s also pre-Christmas silly season. The time of the Christmas Office Party. Halfway through your meal an ‘office’ party begin to arrive. They have booked half the restaurant – a table for 30. They begin their ‘party’ conversation, more and more arrive. Each speaks louder and louder, to overcome the noise of the other. What was white noise is now Black Noise. Now I cannot hear what my partner is saying, but worse, the noise evokes an upsetting emotional response and I have to leave. I have to take the shortest route outside and I cannot wait for the niceties of being polite and asking people to step aside. All I can do is push people aside in my need to escape. This was of course, and very understandably, very upsetting to my partner. My reactions were at an emotional level. This may be viewed by some as some sort of behavioural issue and to me it is- not of my behaviour but of the party itself.

One result of this episode has been that now every time I return to the restaurant I am given the option of seating in the quietest section of the restaurant.

It is not the volume of the sound that is the issue, but the noise. Not being able to filter out the background ‘conversations’ from the important personal conversation triggers the response. ‘Good music’ played at high volume is relaxing. It may also trigger deep emotional responses (indeed if its good music it should trigger a strong emotional response), but this is a positive emotion.

For some reason many restaurants, cafés and coffee shops have the most appalling acoustic design. They are often furnished with objects that reflect and distort sound. Having distorted echoes raises the ‘black’ noise to often painful levels.

Any sudden and unexpected sound is confusing. A knife accidently dropped by someone else during a meal will lead to a moment of confusion while I ‘process’ the event.

On the bright side many around me share this problem and collectively we are searching out venues that are more dementia friendly. Recently a friend from Scotland told of the same issue co-incidentally in one of the same venues, and told of a mobile phone app that measures noise levels. The App I found was ‘Noise Watch’ and it is proving useful is providing a measure of  noise in the environment. It is available from the Windows Store for Win 10 phones and I believe from Google Play for  Android devices. It is also probably available for that curse of the modern world – the iPhone from the Apple Store.

A brief hunt on the Web also turned up this site Noise Watch Australia.

Previous Post – Touch;  More on Sound and Noise

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