Cochlear ear implants help elderly people lead a more fulfilling life

DAVIDSON COUNTY, N.C. -- “I swore I'm on the verge of retiring,” said Jack Frank, as he climbed on top of his large, industrial earth-moving machine.

He’s on the land he owns in the south part of Davidson County. At 94-years-of-old, he’s grading some of the open spaces.

Jack has been on the move during his entire retirement

He often speaks at schools and conferences about his life experiences. As a member of the Lions Club, he has worked on sight and hearing issues. Like most people of his age, hearing is an issue for him.

“These helped but they didn't do the full job,” Frank said of the hearing aids he’s had for a while.

They certainly weren’t enough when he traveled the world, giving speeches as a governor of the Lions Club.

“Yes, I dreaded going, even when I spoke, sometimes,” Frank said.

UNC’s Hearing and Voice Center had an answer: A cochlear implant.

“Jack was definitely struggling, definitely a cochlear implant candidate,” said Andrea Bucker, who worked with him before and after his implant. “He was really having a hard time communicating with family and friends.”

And that communication becomes more vital the older you get, says Frank’s doctor, Harold Pillsbury.

“That's the thing that elderly people want to do: they communicate and that's the main thing they do in life. And so, if you can give that to them, that's 80% of their whole world,” said Pillsbury.

UNC does more cochlear implants than anywhere else in the US and Dr. Pillsbury says that kind of experience is essential in doing the implant correctly.

But, even with the more than 3,000 UNC has done, they’re just scratching the surface.

“Right now, if you look at 100 people that would qualify for a cochlear implant, we're only doing 5% of them,” Pillsbury said.

They can be life-changing by helping people hear conversations around their home and by breaking down barriers for folks who want to travel.

“Let's just say somebody speaks to you in French and you want to translate to English,” Pillsbury said about the technology that is available. “You can get your thing and you say, 'French to English,' and they'll speak to you in French and the cochlear implant will tell you what it is in English.”

Frank isn’t sure he wants to take advantage of that particular feature.

But his daughter-in-law, Debbie Frank, a retired nurse who accompanied Jack on most of his doctor visits for the implant, says it has changed his life.

“He's able to take part in things again that he wasn't able to take part in before,” Debbie Frank said.

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