4 Tips for Understanding a Senior Veteran with PTSD
Posted in Uncategorized on October 24, 2017
While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has gained notoriety in recent years during the global war on terror and related conflicts, the causes of PTSD have been around since the first wars were waged by man. Though many older generations never discussed much of their war experiences, and – more likely – never pursued medical assistance to handle their experiences, PTSD has undoubtedly played a role in the lives and memories of thousands of today’s senior American veterans.
As the overall population of the U.S. ages and the Baby Boomers begin to transition into “senior” status, more research is being done on how PTSD can affect veterans later in life. The results reveal that major life changes connected to aging – such as decreased income, loss of loved ones, physical ailments and retirement – can trigger a resurgence of memories and potential PTSD-like symptoms. Similarly, recent studies show that although many older adults do not meet full criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, the percentage of older adults with sub-clinical levels of PTSD symptoms ranges from 7-15%.
Tips for Understanding a Senior Veteran with PTSD
The clinical definition of PTSD is a mental health problem that develops after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event – like an assault, combat or a natural disaster. It can result in hyper-awareness, jumpiness, loss of interest in normal activities or nightmares. Unfortunately, research shows that it can appear at any time; some veterans experience symptoms immediately after a traumatic event, while others experience them years later, and still others have symptoms that surface, subside and then return later in life.
A new term – Late-Onset Stress Symptomatology (LOSS) – is currently being used to describe the emergence of PTSD-like symptoms decades after combat service. LOSS can be triggered by life changes like retirement, when a person suddenly has more alone time with fewer distractions, allowing memories to resurface. Perhaps the senior veteran once coped with war-related memories with alcohol, medication or other means that are no longer feasible as they age. Other stressors, like losing a loved one or contemplating one’s own mortality, can trigger fears and flashbacks. Finally, many veterans experience a loss of control over their lives or a loss of physical abilities, leading to feelings of anxiety and fear which can cause a resurgence of traumatic memories from the past.
If you know a senior veteran and are concerned about the possibility of them experiencing LOSS or PTSD, there are several ways you can help:
1. Battle the isolation.
Many seniors suffer from isolation as they age, especially as their loved ones or peers begin to pass away. Long, lonely hours in an empty home can lead to memories resurfacing, both good and bad, but with no one to talk to and few things to distract, it is easy to be pulled down into the past. Depression can easily snowball and symptoms such as guilt, lack of appetite and sleeplessness can begin to grow. Helping a senior veteran find new connections – especially with others with similar backgrounds and experiences – can be a real lifeline. Veterans often feel more comfortable discussing their experiences with other veterans who have seen and been through similar situations. Find your local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post, local VA Vet Center, or contact your state Veterans Department to get a list of Veteran Service Organizations as a starting point. Many of these organizations have regular events and support groups.
2. Be aware of the symptoms.
If you are caring for a senior veteran, or have a loved one who fits this category, it is helpful for you and your family members to educate yourself on LOSS and PTSD. It may be helpful to encourage the senior to talk about their current symptoms, or any changes in behavior or stress levels you notice. You can use other opportunities to have a delicate conversation about – changes in physical appearance, events you see on the news or the passing away of a peer. Handled correctly, these discussions can let the senior know that you are aware of how life changes can bring up old memories and new, stressful feelings. Encouraging them that there are ways to improve quality of life and make the most of their golden years can give them hope, and letting them know they don’t have to suffer alone can make a big difference in their willingness to open up and get help.
3. Encourage them to talk to their physician.
Even though there are numerous mental-health resources available to veterans, there remains a stigma connected to mental health issues. Helping the senior recognize patterns of stress they may be experiencing in a new way, and encouraging them to bring them up to a physician, can be a first step in helping them find relief. You can encourage them that there are numerous avenues available to handle these stresses including counseling, medication, relaxation/coping techniques and support groups. You can reassure them that what they are experiencing is not uncommon and that there are ways to improve their quality of life.
Also, keep in mind that many senior veterans may not fully understand what benefits are available, or how to file a claim for assistance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Be prepared to help them learn more or follow up with a local Veteran Service Officer to learn the basics.
4. Help find a new habit or hobby.
As many seniors age, they may feel their physical prowess decreasing. Things they once accomplished easily become difficult or even impossible, causing them to depend on others and potentially feel a loss of control over their own bodies and lives. By helping a senior identify and focus on things that they can do well, you may help fight the feelings of helplessness that can lead to depression and isolation. Whether this is focusing on eating healthier, getting regular, low-impact exercise or taking up a new hobby, a new activity can not only give a person a sense of purpose but can keep his or her mind occupied and less open to negative memories.