Understanding PTSD in Seniors

The senior adult man holding his army cap in his lap listens to a fellow Vietnam PTSD sufferers at the meeting in the community center.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often associated with younger individuals, particularly those who have experienced combat. However, this challenging and often debilitating condition does not exclusively affect the young. Seniors can also be susceptible to PTSD, a fact that is sometimes overlooked. As we observe PTSD Awareness Month, it’s important to highlight some of the reasons seniors may develop this condition as well as how communities can foster a supportive environment for those affected.

PTSD is a condition that occurs in some people after they have experienced something shocking, scary, or dangerous. Anyone can develop PTSD at any age, and more than one in 25 will experience PTSD within their lifetimes. Up to 90% of those 65 and older have been exposed to at least one potentially traumatic event during their lifetime. For seniors,  PTSD can arise from various life experiences, many of which are unique to their later stages of life:

  • Historical traumas Older adults may carry the burden of traumas experienced in their youth, such as military combat, the sudden loss of loved ones, or significant historical events like wars or the Great Depression. The effects of these traumas can resurface later in life, especially as seniors reflect on their past.
  • Recent losses The senior years are often marked by increased frequency of loss—spouses, friends, independence, and physical capabilities. Even retirement can create trauma. These losses can trigger PTSD symptoms, especially if they involve sudden and dramatic changes to one’s way of life.
  • Health-related events Experiences such as serious falls, medical emergencies, or the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness can also be traumatic. For seniors, the intense fear and helplessness felt during such events can lead to PTSD.

Recent research suggests strong relationships can counter PTSD. Joel Gelernter, M.D., explained the findings: “Social environmental factors are critical to informing risk for PTSD … The ability to form secure attachments is one of the strongest protective factors for PTSD and related disorders.” So, to help seniors dealing with PTSD, it’s important that we create a safe and supportive environment. Here are several ways that our communities can help:

  • Awareness education Regular workshops and informational sessions can help seniors, family members, and caregivers recognize the signs of PTSD. Understanding is the first step toward effective management and support.
  • Professional support Access to mental health professionals who specialize in geriatric care can provide the necessary therapy and treatment.
  • Peer support Encouraging the formation of peer support groups can give seniors a platform to share their experiences and coping strategies, reducing feelings of isolation and stigma.
  • Stable environments Routine and familiarity can help reduce anxiety and stress for PTSD sufferers. Ensuring a calm and predictable environment can minimize potential triggers.

If you or your older family member needs help in managing PTSD, here are some resources that can offer support:

  • National Center for PTSD offers tools and information specifically geared toward understanding and managing PTSD.
  • PTSD Alliance has informative and educational materials on PTSD.
  • Veterans Affairs (VA) provides specialized PTSD programs tailored to address the unique needs of older vets as well as their partners.
  • Local health departments may offer mental health services that include support for individuals with PTSD.

During PTSD Awareness Month, let’s commit to better understanding the unique challenges faced by our seniors. By fostering a supportive community with resources, we can make a significant difference in the lives of those battling PTSD. Together, we can help seniors not just manage PTSD symptoms, but thrive despite them.

Categories: Caregiving, Senior Health