Whenever I visited Aba, my maternal grandfather, who lives in India, he burst with questions. He wanted to know how I was, and whether I still liked my job. He wanted to know what I had for dinner each day, and whether I still worked out. He wanted to know how the internet works, and what exactly was a Facebook.
Each time I answered, however, his face would settle into a puzzled expression. He’d lean in closer and look faintly annoyed. I spoke again, and again, and then one more time, my voice growing louder and louder until I was practically shouting at him. Then his shoulders drooped, and he waved me away with a resigned sigh.
At 95, Aba can’t hear much. He started to lose his hearing pretty early in life, back when he was a strapping young medical school student in the 1940s who knocked out a couple thousand squats a day. He was frighteningly fit except for bouts of cold that would strike him more and more frequently as the years went by. Doctors later diagnosed him with otitis media, a condition caused by repeated infections of the ear canals that were triggered by his colds.
Still, he powered through life, living in Narayangaon, a small town in western India where he built an eye hospital from scratch. Aba was a social animal. He loved company, and loved having long, winding conversations. But by the time he turned 80, doctors said that more than 70% of his hearing capacity was gone. Aba spent thousands on expensive, medical-grade hearing aids. They were functional, but he despised them.
“They make all noises loud,” he complained. “I just need to hear the person I am speaking with. I don’t need everything amplified. It hurts, and I can’t stand it.”
Simple conversations were now Herculean efforts that ended in shouting matches and frustration.
As he neared 90, Aba’s world shrank. He spent his days reading and watching TV, listening to the sound through a pair of oversized wireless headphones over his ears with the volume cranked to the max. He still wore his hearing aids, but as his ears got worse and worse, the devices became even less effective. Simple conversations were now Herculean efforts that ended in shouting matches and frustration.
“DO YOU WANT DINNER?”
“ARE YOU SLEEPY?”
“CAN I GET YOU SOME TEA?”
Phone calls were impossible — Aba had to put his phone on speaker, press it right up against his ear, and ask the person on the other end to shout as loudly as they could. Eventually, “talking” to Aba on the phone meant getting him on a video call and smiling and waving at him.
When I visited him in the fall of 2022, I was wearing a pair of AirPods, and he gestured to my ears with a puzzled expression on his face.
“HEADPHONES!” I shouted. “I USE THESE TO LISTEN TO MUSIC!”
And then, I wondered if I could use them for something more important.
In 2018, Apple made Live Listen, a feature of iOS that lets iPhones and iPads transmit audio from their microphones directly to compatible hearing aids, work with regular AirPods. I hadn’t had any reason to use the feature myself, but now I was curious. Could Live Listen help me have a conversation with my grandfather after all these years?
I slipped the AirPods out of my ears and put them in his. I turned on Live Listen on my iPhone, brought it close to my mouth, and spoke into it.
“Hi, can you hear me?”
Aba’s face broke into a grin, and he nodded excitedly. “I can hear you! I can hear you!”
AirPods aren’t my favorite Apple product. I think they’re overpriced, and they don’t sound great for what you pay. But it’s also true that no other wireless buds work so seamlessly with iPhones, which is why they’re the default wireless earphones for most people, including me.
They’re also an environmental hazard. Vice called AirPods “future fossils of capitalism,” destined for landfills once their tiny batteries, encased in hard plastic, wear out after a couple of years. And I resent the fact that Apple eliminated headphone jacks that worked perfectly well and forced people to pay for something that they used to get in the box for free.
But with Live Listen, AirPods helped me reconnect with my grandfather in a way that no other device has been able to. I’m willing to look past my misgivings for that.
Nearly 30 million US adults could benefit from using hearing aids, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. But in adults over 70 with hearing loss, fewer than 1 in 3 have actually used them.
That’s because hearing aids are expensive. In the US, they can cost as much as $5,000 and often aren’t covered by insurance. In October, in an effort to drive down hearing aid prices, the Food and Drug Administration allowed some types to be sold over the counter for the first time. But even with the new rules, the devices can still cost well over $1,000. Meanwhile, the most expensive pair of Apple’s in-ear buds are $249.
Last year, a team of researchers from Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan read a short sentence out loud to people with mild to moderate hearing loss. The subjects listened to the sentence multiple times — with basic and premium hearing aids, as well as with two kinds of AirPods. Then they were asked to repeat the line back. In some cases, the researchers found that the AirPods performed as well as the premium hearing aids. The study was published in November in the journal iScience.
“They won’t replace hearing aids but it’s a good way for people to experience what the world would be like if they could get some help, an upgrade for their hearing,” Yen-Fu Cheng, an ear, nose, and throat specialist who cowrote the study, told the Wall Street Journal.
Apple says that Live Listen can help people “hear a conversation in a noisy area or even hear someone speaking across the room,” but the company doesn’t explicitly market the feature as a hearing aid. Still, Apple has been quietly researching turning AirPods into health devices that can be used more than just to listen to audio, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Apple has studied using AirPods to monitor people’s body temperature, correct their posture, and boost their hearing. Apple’s earbuds already include sensors, microphones, an amplifier, and a high-end chip that could make them ideal for helping people who have moderate hearing loss, experts told the Journal. (Apple declined to respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about Live Listen on the record.)
Minutes into wearing my AirPods, Aba had a question: “Can I get my own pair?”
Of course, I said, and a few days later, a package from Amazon showed up at his doorstep. I paired Aba’s new AirPods to an old iPhone SE that once belonged to my mom and set him up.
For the first time in years, Aba and I talked. I spoke, directly and quietly, into the phone and watched him nod his head in comprehension, and when he responded, clearly and in complete sentences, it felt like a chasm had closed.
No longer restricted to transactional monosyllables and gestures, Aba talked and talked. We talked about his childhood and what growing up in an India still ruled by the British was like. We talked about politics (sigh) and India and America and the internet and, yes, Facebook.
These days, Aba and his AirPods are inseparable. He’s far less lonely. He can finally meet people again and hold entire conversations, as long as they speak into his phone.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?” he asked me recently over a video call. I didn’t have an answer, but it didn’t matter because he was also smiling the biggest smile I have seen on his face in years.