Chief complaint: Haunted house

October 22, 2001

The author dismissed a supernatural explanation for an elderly patient&s unease. But he couldn&t dismiss her loneliness.

 

Chief complaint: Haunted house

The author dismissed a supernatural explanation for an elderly patient's unease. But he couldn't dismiss her loneliness.

By Noah R. Gilson, MD
Neurologist/West Long Branch, NJ

"I have spirits in my house." The 90-year-old woman who told me this had considered consulting an exorcist. Instead, she was consulting me. Her visit resulted in some unusual chart notes. The woman—I'll call her Angela Jones—said the spirits made her floor pitch forward and backward and from side to side. She also told me that a low rumble permeated the house.

When these disturbances began a few years earlier, Angela had suspected a natural cause. But none of the plumbers, electricians, or heating contractors she summoned was able to diagnose the problem bedeviling the house that she and her late husband had built 70 years before. These contractors were, however, more than happy to rewire the house, replace the heating system, and run up other big bills.

Still, the weird phenomena persisted. So she concluded that the house was possessed by evil spirits.

Despite her 90 years, Angela was alert and lucid. She was holding up physically, too, for the most part. Granted, she had the kinds of chronic ailments you'd associate with advanced age—arthritis, an unsteady gait, a mild case of congestive heart failure, and failing vision. But she looked young and spry enough to pass for 75 or 80.

At the end of the visit, I felt stumped by the story of the haunted house. What's going on? I asked myself. Was it Angela? Or the house? Since she lived a mere three blocks from me, there was an easy way to find out. "Mrs. Jones, I'd like to stop by your place tonight at 6 to take a look for myself," I said.

She was waiting on the porch. When she saw me, she broke into a big smile. Then, hobbling along on two canes, she proceeded to give me a tour. Her home was neat, clean, and had an antiseptic smell.

The walls were covered with photographs of her husband, who had died 10 years earlier at age 96. He had operated a barbershop in the front of the house for 50 years and cut hair for two generations of the town's residents. A bona fide community pillar, he had served as a scoutmaster, lay reader at church, and chief of the volunteer fire department. He had been a wonderful father to the couple's son. Angela couldn't say enough good things about him.

During the tour, I looked for signs of mischievous spirits. As I expected, nothing was moving or vibrating. But I did notice some oddities. The house had a very long, narrow hallway with tiny, cramped rooms off to one side. The 70-year-old floorboards had warped to create an irregular walking surface. A lumpy carpet made my footing even more unsure. Given these structural quirks, I started to feel a bit off-balance as I walked along. It was like being in a carnival funhouse, or a small boat on choppy water.

I then made a tentative diagnosis of Angela's condition: vestibulopathy secondary to advanced age. It was made symptomatic by irregular visuo-vestibular inputs to the brain (narrow hallway and rooms) and compounded by poor vision (cataracts, macular degeneration) as well as irregular proprioceptive inputs (warped floors) that created the sense of constant movement. I also suspected tinnitus—that would account for the low hum she often heard.

An ENT doctor could address the possibility of an inner-ear problem, and in fact Angela eventually scheduled an appointment to see such a specialist. But my medical explanation didn't get to the heart of the matter. Maybe the house wasn't haunted by ghosts who shook the floorboards. But it was haunted by the memory of her beloved husband. My patient had the disease of elderly widows who outlive their soulmates.

It's called loneliness.

 

Noah Gilson. Chief complaint: Haunted house. Medical Economics 2001;20:45.