Listening for Meaning in the Voices Nursing Home Clients Hear

Listening for Meaning in the Voices Nursing Home Clients Hear

by Tom Medlar
Therapists working in nursing homes can better help by listening to the voices in their client’s heads.

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One day I asked her, 'If we had a new pill that would eliminate all voices, would you want it or not?'
Several years ago, I worked with a lovely lady in her early seventies who resided in a nursing facility, and who heard the voices of her daughter and son daily. She had been delighted to be a young mother of two children but was ill with bipolar disorder and psychotic features that necessitated repeated psychiatric hospital admissions. Her husband subsequently divorced her, gained custody of the children, and remarried. The children bonded with the stepmother and cut off all contacts with their biological mother. One day I asked her, “If we had a new pill that would eliminate all voices, would you want it or not?” “Oh, no, Tom; then I’d have no contact with my children,” she answered.

Different Kinds of Voices

Over the next few years, I asked that question to hundreds of therapy patients in nursing facilities. I had initially assumed that most persons who hear auditory hallucinations would like to turn them off completely. To my surprise and increasing fascination, the majority, approximately 70–80% of those that I asked said no, they would not take a pill that would erase all voices.

“Tom, if it wasn’t for the voices, I’d be very lonely,” said a woman in her fifties with schizophrenia
Individuals with whom I’ve worked therapeutically have explained that there is indeed a negative aspect of the voices, usually involving insulting and hurtful remarks, but there is also a positive aspect—something that was pleasing, and they would not want to do without. For each person, the positive element was different, and was personally meaningful. “Tom, if it wasn’t for the voices, I’d be very lonely,” said a woman in her fifties with schizophrenia.

“I’d have no one to talk to if it weren’t for the voices,” said a male patient.

“I don’t really talk back to them, but I like them, and I listen to them; and it’s better than talking with people,” said a 73-year-old man with schizophrenia.

“I guess it’s a side benefit of schizophrenia: I can hear the voices of my dead relatives,” said a male patient.

“The good voices I think of as the children, and the bad voices are the adults; I’d just feel terrible if I stopped hearing from the children; they cheer me up,” said a different female patient.

“It’s easier talking to the voices than to people,” a man said.

Some believe they gain special knowledge from voices. “How else would I know what’s going on?” one man asked. “I read people’s minds; I can tell what they’re thinking because I can hear it.”

Some patients, though, do wish to eliminate all auditory hallucinations, and their psychiatric medications do offer symptomatic relief. Some patients tell me that they used to hear voices, but no longer do because of their medication.

Some individuals with whom I’ve worked have achieved insights through psychotherapy that helped them understand and manage the symptoms. I worked with a 74-year-old woman who had more than a 50-year experience of schizophrenia. She knew the name of the condition yet could not recall ever being educated about the symptoms of the illness. She believed that she had super hearing and could hear persons in different rooms saying nasty things about her. Often, she would yell out when passing by the nurse’s desk—because of hearing the nurse making insulting remarks about her. After months of therapeutic conversations about voices as symptoms of schizophrenia, she greeted me one morning by saying, “Guess what happened today, Tom? I was walking past the nurse’s area, and I heard them talking bad about me, and I realized; I’m hearing it, but they are not saying it!”

Troubled Journeys

Multiple factors might cause or contribute to one’s hearing an auditory hallucination—they can be associated with neurologic conditions, seizures, autism, bereavement, medication effects, drug effects, trauma and dissociation, borderline personality disorder, dementia, and/or postpartum psychosis. But for persons with a diagnosed psychiatric condition who hear voices, there may often be a pattern of additional, related life experiences that can further limit social functioning and productive activities.

Multiple factors might cause or contribute to one’s hearing an auditory hallucination
Many patients who speak with me in psychotherapy about the voices they hear also report early-education learning difficulties, special education classes, and a growing sense in childhood of being different, with estrangement from peers and few childhood friends—and, therefore, reduced opportunities to develop and refine social relationship and communication skills.

Autistic elements are commonly identified in schizophrenic illnesses. Learning disabilities, likewise, are commonly associated with schizophrenic illness. Autistic features, learning disabilities, and mental illnesses can contribute to social estrangement and reduced development of adaptive social communication skills.

My clinical experience suggests that many patients rely on an imaginary companionship through the voices
Affected persons may withdraw into substitute communications with voices, and that can in turn contribute to worsening of symptoms of depression—as can be manifested in the menace of some perceived voices—and to progressive depths of withdrawal, thereby adding to paranoid distrust of others.

My clinical experience suggests that many patients rely on an imaginary companionship through the voices and would like to minimize or eliminate only the malignant (the derogatory, or depression-reflective) voices. Yet other persons report significant relief when their experiences of hearing voices have been quelled by medication. If those persons had been asked prior to remission of auditory hallucinations/delusions (AH/D) symptoms, might they, too, have said they would prefer to retain the voices? I believe that relief from symptoms would better serve an individual than a pseudo-accommodation to them.

The Gifts of Therapy

I think there is a vital need for new and more effective medications, and for optimum application of presently available medications, along with psychotherapy and psychosocial interventions that can be applied by staff persons in the nursing facility.

Sometimes one learns in unexpected ways that a patient is experiencing hallucinations
Sometimes one learns in unexpected ways that a patient is experiencing hallucinations. I worked with a 48-year-old man with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and no known experience of hallucinations or other psychotic symptoms. He often complained of pain and argued with staff persons. He was making vague remarks about something bothering him one day, and among other questions, I asked if he ever heard voices in his ears, anticipating he would say no. He surprised me by saying, “Not in my ears, I hear voices in the mattress; I hear the voices of the dead people who died on the mattress before I started using it. That’s why I don’t sleep at night.” The physical frailty that brought him to the facility for nursing care and rehab triggered underlying fears of dying.

Symptoms can be remarkably clever psychic creations that help balance an imbalanced psyche
Images in dreams typically hold specific and personal meanings that can be identified through sensitive personal conversation, and awareness of those meanings can improve a person’s understanding and coping with internal experiences. Hallucinations and delusions likewise contain personalized meanings and tend to provide protective psychological functions. Symptoms can be remarkably clever psychic creations that help balance an imbalanced psyche. 

Many persons who don’t have a mental illness might entertain glorious daydreams of special accomplishments. Some persons with a psychiatric diagnosis develop grand delusions that protect against feelings of shame and disappointment over inadequacies. A 54-year-old man with schizophasia and thought disorders due to schizophrenia who found it difficult to communicate in ordinary ways with others once told me he had written the lyrics for many of the major rock bands.

Sometimes a patient will openly discuss their hallucinations during therapy yet deny having them when questioned by other care providers. “That was a red flag for me,” a 54-year-old female patient said about an initial conversation with a psychiatric consultant asking assessment questions. “I didn’t know who he was, and he was asking these personal questions, so I hardly said anything.”

I explain that in psychotherapy we are looking for the true personal meaning of the experience
Some patients say they do not report their internal (symptomatic) experiences, such as hearing voices, to other care providers because “they might not believe me,” “they might think I’m crazy,” “they might just think it’s not true,” “they might make fun of me,” or “they might send me to the hospital.”

I explain that in psychotherapy we are looking for the true personal meaning of the experience, so that they might better understand and manage those experiences—and, for persons hearing voices associated with dissociative conditions, so that they might better integrate the meaning of the perceptions. In therapy we talk about the difference between objective reality and subjective reality, so that the person might feel less perplexed and afraid, and more willing to discuss and examine their experiences.

The Other Side of the Sun

I met for weekly psychotherapy for two years with a 53-year-old man with schizophrenia who told me one morning, “I just got back to earth. For the last 30 years I was living on a planet on the other side of the sun.” He was upset because the staff had laughed and told him it was not true when he told them earlier that morning about his experience. I spoke with him about things that are true as shared realities and things that are true as psychological experiences that have symbolic personal meaning. We spoke of ways he wanted to fit in and get along with others, yet how that might be difficult and how he might sometimes feel far away from others. So far that it would be like being on a different planet; and how good it feels when one starts to feel better, and back down to earth, and better able to connect with people. This conversation helped him to speak more directly about the alienation he sometimes feels because of his illness.

In psychotherapy, some patients argue that the brain is not capable of creating convincing experiences that are not real. The following remarks represent a composite of conversational points from sessions with a few patients.

Therapist: Have you ever awakened from a dream and thought, wow, that dream was so real!

Patient: Yeah.

Therapist: And where did the dream come from?

Patient: Okay, it came from the brain, I see.

Therapist: Have you heard of someone taking LSD?

Patient: Yeah.

Therapist: What happened during the “trip?”

Patient: Oh, yeah; they heard things and saw stuff, and maybe went to another world.

Therapist: Those seemingly real experiences were caused by a chemical that triggered an imbalance of other brain chemicals.

Patient: My psychiatrist said my illness was a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Therapist: And psychiatric medications work to correct imbalances of brain chemicals.

Patient: Oh, so brain chemicals can make you hear and see things that are not there, except in your brain.

Therapist: Do you hear a high-pitched ringing sound?

Patient: No.

Therapist: I do, because I have a condition called Tinnitus. The ringing is not coming from outside of me, but from inside, because of a medical condition. It is subjectively real, because only I hear it. It would be objectively real if we both heard it at the same time.

Patient: Okay, so some things can be real for me on the inside, but not real between you and me; I guess that’s like mental illness.

Asking the Right Questions

Assessment questions using clinical terminology might trigger anxiety and reluctance to acknowledge internal perceptions and beliefs. “Do you hear auditory hallucinations?” might trigger a denial, yet asking “Do you hear voices or receive communications that are pleasant, unpleasant, both or neither?” might initiate conversation about one’s experiences. Asking if one feels paranoid might stir resistance, yet asking “Is it sometimes frightening or confusing to deal with people?” might lead to conversation about the thing’s others do that cause fear or mistrust.

Assessment questions using clinical terminology might trigger anxiety and reluctance to acknowledge internal perceptions and beliefs
What do auditory hallucinations compensate for? What do they replace? Do internal or out loud conversations with these voices represent a form of self-treatment for the patient? What type of adaptive skill training might address those needs?

Turning to the literature does not always result in answers to these enigmatic questions. I believe that additional research is needed to:
  • Improve awareness of the incidence of AH/D amongst persons with psychiatric diagnoses residing in nursing facilities
  • Identify how many patients have achieved remission of AH/D resulting from psychiatric medication
  • Determine how many persons experience auditory hallucinations without delusions
  • Identify the percentage of patients preferring to retain rather than eliminate AH/D
  • Elicit examples of personal meanings of AH/D
  • Develop educational guidelines to assist Activities Department staffers, including occupational and physical therapists, to teach and practice adaptive social communication skills
  • Gather ideas/suggestions from patients on how professionals might inquire about symptoms without causing shame or triggering denials

***

I have been and continue to be deeply moved by the trust and disclosures offered to me by the many vulnerable persons with whom I have been privileged to work. I ache with hopes that we find new ways to quiet their symptoms, relieve their shame, and help them deepen their willingness and capacity for ordinary social communications.

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Bios
Tom Medlar Tom Medlar, LMHC, LMFT, is married to Joan, and is the stepfather of Amy and Joe, and grandfather of Ella and Kieran. He is a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church, and a member of the Catholic Writer’s Guild and Catholic Literary Arts. Tom works for Health Drive in Framingham, Massachusetts providing psychotherapy to persons residing in nursing facilities.