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PTSD is one of the most common mental health conditions, and it can be especially difficult for older adults. If the disorder goes untreated, it can cause serious emotional and psychological challenges and affect your everyday functioning. It’s important to be aware of the causes, signs, and treatment options for PTSD in older adults so that you can support your aging loved one during times of hardship.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a psychiatric condition that people may experience after going through or witnessing a traumatic event. Examples of experiences that can lead to PTSD include a natural disaster, war, a serious accident, or an assault. A closely-related condition called complex PTSD can be caused by prolonged, stressful life events, such as homelessness, childhood neglect, or living in an area affected by war.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. However, the condition is more common than you may think. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 3.5 percent of adults in the U.S. have PTSD, and one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.

PTSD in Older Adults

Older adults may have a higher risk of developing PTSD than the general population. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that the role changes associated with aging may make coping with earlier trauma more difficult. Even if an individual had never previously showed signs of PTSD, they may start to struggle with their trauma as they age and face retirement, physical health problems, and functional and cognitive decline.

PTSD in older adults can also occur because there are fewer opportunities to self-medicate. Many people use avoidance-based coping strategies, such as working long hours, to distract themselves from the psychological effects of the traumatic event. However, as people age, their coping strategies tend to become less available, so they are forced to face their trauma head-on for the first time.

Seniors are also at risk of developing PTSD after a serious fall. According to a study published in the General Hospital Psychiatry journal, 27 out of 100 people over the age of 65 who were admitted to the hospital after falling had PTSD symptoms.

Signs of PTSD in Seniors

Signs and symptoms of PTSD in older adults can vary from individual to individual. Here are some of the most common symptoms:

• Flashbacks, nightmares, or vivid memories of the traumatic event
• Avoiding places or events that are reminders of the traumatic experience
• Avoiding thoughts or feelings about the traumatic event
• Feeling tense or on guard all the time
• Being easily startled
• Feelings of guilt or blame about the traumatic experience
• Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
• Reckless or aggressive behavior

PTSD Treatment

PTSD in older adults can easily be overlooked because family members may think the symptoms are caused by aging, cognitive decline, or social isolation. The first step toward treating any mental health condition is recognizing that something is wrong, so it’s important to look out for signs of PTSD in your aging family members or friends.

The Department of Veteran Affairs highlights some of the unique challenges of assessment and treatment for PTSD in elderly individuals. Older adults are more likely to focus on physical symptoms like pain, sleeping problems, or gastrointestinal issues and less likely to focus on the emotional difficulties of PTSD. They also are more likely to seek out help from a primary care doctor than from a mental health clinic. Although mental health issues like anxiety and PTSD have become more understood and accepted in recent years, some older adults struggle with feelings of shame about their trauma and its emotional effects.

Therapy is the most commonly recommended PTSD treatment by organizations like the VA and the American Psychological Association. Here are some of the most common types of therapy that can help with PTSD in older adults:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Addresses the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to change the unhealthy patterns that cause difficulties in functioning.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

A type of CBT that teaches individuals to challenge and modify the unhealthy beliefs related to their trauma.

Cognitive Therapy

A type of CBT that involves modifying the negative evaluations and memories of the traumatic event to interrupt the behavioral or thought patterns that affect functioning.

Prolonged Exposure

Helps individuals learn to gradually approach memories, feelings, and situations related to their trauma.

Therapy may be a different experience for older adults than it is for young or middle-aged adults. It may be difficult for seniors to talk about their experiences and emotions, and older adults who are in cognitive decline may have trouble with memory and concentration during therapy sessions. This doesn’t mean that therapy for seniors with PTSD is ineffective, though. Therapists who specialize in working with the elderly know how to address their unique challenges and how to offer support and encouragement.

Good mental health is just as important for seniors as it is for younger adults. Therapy for PTSD in older adults can be a great way for seniors to process and manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to trauma. Contact us today to learn more about counseling for PTSD or other mental health concerns.

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