Tips to Identify & Manage PTSD in Seniors

By Michael Watson

Traumatic events are tragically common. In fact, 70% of United States adults experience a serious traumatic event at least once in their life, and 20% of those people will develop PTSD in response to the event. This leaves a whopping 24.4 million individuals coping with a serious mental health condition that requires professional intervention. 

If the senior that you live with or care for is one of the many Americans who suffers with PTSD, you may find yourself struggling to cope with this serious condition. Fortunately, by recognizing the common causes, symptoms, signs, and treatments for PTSD, you can help provide invaluable support for your loved one.

What Is PTSD?

First recognized officially in the 1980s, post-traumatic stress disorder has afflicted humans throughout history. Because they experienced full lives before PTSD became an officially-recognized disorder, many seniors struggle for decades before receiving an appropriate diagnosis.

We don't know why some people recover appropriately from dangerous, shocking, or terrifying events while others will struggle with PTSD. Whatever the case, a person with PTSD experiences drastic changes both physically, mentally, and emotionally.

For example, these individuals may have elevated levels of the "fight or flight" stress hormones that keep them in a constant state of arousal. In addition, certain areas of the brain — like the hippocampus — changes, worsening symptoms like flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, and fearful memories. People with PTSD constantly relive the traumatic event that harmed them, creating life-changing negative consequences.  

What Causes PTSD?

In some cases, you might be unaware of events in a senior's childhood, adolescence, or adult life that triggered their PTSD. In other cases, a senior will be able to clearly identify what caused their trauma. In either case, there are many reasons why a senior might have PTSD:

  • Combat and war
  • Natural disasters
  • Traumatic childbirth experiences
  • Major motor vehicle accidents
  • Medical issues that required hospitalization
  • Abuse, violence, or neglect 
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Loss and grief

What Are Signs of PTSD?

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a seniors must have experienced a traumatic event and displayed a certain set of symptoms for at least a month. Some of the symptoms include the following:

  • Flashbacks and uncontrollable thoughts. People with PTSD often cannot control their intrusive thoughts and are plagued by flashbacks. During a flashback, the individual feels like they are reliving the traumatic event.
  • Avoiding triggers. Because thinking about the traumatic event is so painful, people with PTSD often avoid people, places, and things that might remind them of the event. This can limit their day-to-day activities significantly.
  • Behavioral changes. Often, people with PTSD are easily startled and can react inappropriately to triggers that wouldn't bother most people. They may be prone to outbursts of anger and anxiety that are difficult for others to understand.
  • Negativity. PTSD changes the way a person thinks. They may have more negative thoughts, have difficulty trusting others, feel guilty, anxious, shameful, and terrified.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, major symptoms can continue for months or even years after the event.

Though PTSD can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional, it's important to recognize common signs of the disorder so you can help get your senior the help they need.

When trying to deduce if an aging loved one is suffering from PTSD, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Have you been made aware that they recently (or in the past) experienced a serious traumatic event?
  • Do they have difficulty speaking with, connecting to, or socializing with others?
  • Do they show signs of being depressed or anxious?
  • Have you noticed that they have angry outbursts or erratic behavior?
  • Do they have difficulty sleeping? Or experience recurrent and serious nightmares?
  • Have they confided with you that they are struggling with controlling their intrusive thoughts?
  • Have they experienced flashbacks that you are aware of?
  • Do they have signs of low self-esteem, poor self-worth, and inadequacy?
  • Have they recently turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism?

How To Support a Senior with PTSD

The first thing you can do to support a senior with PTSD is simply to recognize the signs and symptoms of the disorder. By educating yourself on what to expect, you can help them seek the help they need.

Here are some other tips on how to deal with PTSD in a senior:

1. Remain compassionate

When suffering from PTSD, seniors can relive episodes of traumatic events through flashbacks. Though they're perfectly safe, they may suddenly feel like they're in terrible danger and start acting erratic and strange. This can be scary for caregivers, so it's important to remain compassionate, understanding, and empathetic.

Though it's impossible to know exactly what the senior is going through, it might help you to research what goes on in the mind of someone with PTSD. This will help you remain empathetic and understand that they can't simply "snap out of it." They need loving support and professional help.

2. Understand co-factors

PTSD is a serious condition for people of all age levels, but there are some special considerations for seniors. For example, a senior might also have Alzheimer's disease or dementia, which could worsen symptoms and increase confusion.

In other cases, medications taken to manage other health conditions can exacerbate emotional outbursts. Coping with a myriad of different health conditions and mental disorders is one of the unique challenges of being a caregiver. If you accompany your loved one to doctor's appointments, it's important to keep these contributing issues in mind.

3. Embrace Therapy

Though there are many different therapeutic approaches available, cognitive behavioral therapy has long been considered the most effective. It works by changing an individuals thought and behavior patterns surrounding an event.

Cognitive behavior therapy might involve interventions like exposure therapy, in which an individual is gradually taught to face the triggers that cause them fear. It can also use techniques like cognitive restructuring, which helps seniors fight feelings of shame and confusion they may be carrying from the past.

4. Manage medications

In some cases, medication prescribed by a psychiatrist might be the best approach for your loved one. There are major four medications that have been found to help:

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

All of these are a form of anti-depressant medication and work by changing the way the brain interacts with certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and nor-epinephrine. Make sure to keep doctors up to date about any other medications that your senior is taking.

5. Find support groups

If your senior is able, seeking support groups can be a powerful way to support their healing process. Trauma and suffering can lead to isolation, which worsens anxiety and depression. In some cases, your loved one will benefit from hearing about other individuals' similar experiences. 

For example, you can seek out veteran support groups if your senior is a combat veteran. There are also support groups geared specifically towards different types of trauma, including assault, natural disasters, and loss.

6. Explore alternative therapies

While it's important to work with medications, therapy, and official support groups, there are also some alternative therapies that can be very helpful in supporting those with PTSD. For example, you might want to explore:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Breathing techniques
  • Gentle yoga practice

These gentle techniques can not only help your loved one establish coping mechanisms for their PTSD symptoms, but also help provide good lifelong habits that can support better quality of life.

7. Take care of yourself, too

Caring for or living with someone with a disorder like PTSD can be overwhelming and lead to caregiver stress You may be subjected to outbursts and strange behaviors that frighten or upset you. Sometimes, it may feel as though these negative feelings are addressed towards you.

In these cases, it's important to take care of yourself. Try not to take it personally. Know you are doing your best. Help your loved one get the professional help they need, but also give yourself the time and space apart to cope.

Though PTSD is a serious mental health issue, kindness, compassion, education, and professional help can go a long way. Over time, it's possible to reduce symptoms of PTSD and help a senior regain their quality of life.

At Caring Senior Services, we specialize in providing caring and compassionate services for seniors. If you want to learn more about helping a senior cope with PTSD, please contact a Caring location near you today. 

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Tags: Senior Health