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Tips for Managing PTSD in Seniors

Most seniors have experienced at least one traumatic event, and many show signs of PTSD. Trauma is unfortunately common, but experiencing a traumatic event doesn’t mean you’re hopeless. With help and support from others, PTSD is a manageable condition.
If you or an elderly loved one has PTSD, you should understand what the condition is, what its signs and symptoms are, and how you can manage the challenges that come with the diagnosis.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a mental health condition that can occur after you witness or experience a traumatic event. There are a wide variety of experiences that can lead to PTSD, including abuse, assault, war, natural disasters, and car accidents.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in 11 people are diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but those who do may struggle with the symptoms for a long time.
Seniors can develop PTSD from a recent traumatic event like a fall, medical emergency, or death of a loved one. In some cases, the PTSD symptoms arise from an event that happened years ago. As you get older, your social circle and routine may change, which could make the trauma feel more difficult to manage.

Signs of PTSD in Elderly

Identifying PTSD is the first step toward managing it. Sometimes, the signs of PTSD are very noticeable. Other times, seniors are more secretive about their mental health struggles.
Here are some of the most common signs of PTSD in seniors:
• Flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event
• Difficulty sleeping
• Feeling tense or on edge; startling easily
• Social isolation
• Avoiding people, places, and situations that trigger thoughts about the event
• Personality or behavioral changes
• Difficulty trusting others
• Feelings of shame, guilt, or depression

How to Manage PTSD in Seniors

If you or an elderly loved one is struggling with PTSD, you may feel lost or overwhelmed. Although you can’t erase the traumatic event that caused the disorder, you can take steps to manage the symptoms and offer support. Here are five tips for managing PTSD in seniors:

1. Show compassion.

Compassion is the best way to support seniors who are struggling with PTSD. If your loved one has PTSD, try to come to terms with the fact that you may never fully understand what they’re going through. Instead, your goal should be to listen and accept their experiences.
Their flashbacks may be surprising or confusing, but it’s important to remain compassionate. Don’t try to get your loved one to “snap out of it.” The best thing you can do is simply be there to listen and remind them that they’re safe.
If you’re struggling with PTSD, be compassionate with yourself. It’s common to feel guilty or frustrated with your symptoms, but remember that your trauma is not your fault.

2. Be aware of co-factors.

Although PTSD affects people of all ages, seniors may experience certain co-factors that make the symptoms more intense. One of the most common co-factors in seniors is Alzheimer’s or dementia. Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts are already confusing, but cognitive decline can make these experiences even more difficult.
Seniors who take medications for other conditions may also be at an increased risk of severe PTSD symptoms. Some medicines can affect your mood, which could exacerbate your PTSD.
If your loved one has PTSD alongside other health issues, research the ways the conditions may interact with each other. Speak with their doctor about the possible side effects for any medications they take, and seek professional advice if you think a co-factor is contributing to poor mental health.

3. Anticipate triggers.

Learning your triggers or your loved one’s triggers is a helpful way to manage PTSD in seniors. In many cases, situations that remind the person of the traumatic event will make them feel anxious, angry, depressed, or overwhelmed.
PTSD triggers are sometimes obvious. For example, if you were in a serious car accident, you may feel anxious or experience flashbacks while in the car. However, PTSD triggers are not always this clear. For example, you or your senior loved one may feel triggered when you hear a song that was playing during the traumatic event. It may take some time to pinpoint your loved one’s triggers, especially if they’re in cognitive decline and have a hard time explaining their experiences.
Triggers can be either external or internal experiences. Internal triggers are even more difficult for loved ones to identify. The following are some of the most common triggering events:
• Locations or situations similar to the trauma
• Dates, seasons, or times of day related to the trauma
• Weather events
• Sounds, sights, or smells associated with the traumatic event
• Physical pain, sickness, hunger, or thirst
• Bodily sensations that recall the trauma
• Feeling trapped or out of control
Avoiding all triggers isn’t always the best way for seniors to manage PTSD as it could lead to isolation and loneliness. Instead, you should have a plan for how you’ll address triggers if you encounter them. For example, you could plan to do a deep breathing exercise or step outside for some fresh air if you start feeling triggered. Everyone’s experiences are different, so it may take time to figure out what works for you.

4. Join a support group.

A support group can be a great opportunity for seniors to connect with others who are going through a similar experience. Social isolation and loneliness can worsen PTSD symptoms, and a support group can be a meaningful social outlet.
You can find support groups specifically for seniors, or you could look for groups that are geared toward the type of trauma you experienced. For example, there are support groups for veterans, assault survivors, natural disaster survivors, and widows or widowers.

5. Speak with a counselor.

PTSD is a serious mental health concern, and it can be hard to manage without professional help. If you or your loved one is showing the signs of PTSD, consider reaching out to a counselor.
Therapy provides a safe and supportive environment for you to process the traumatic event, which is an important step toward healing. Your counselor will also help you discover your triggers and find ways to cope with them so that you can live without fear and anxiety.
Recovering from PTSD takes time, but you don’t have to let a traumatic event rule your life. Compassion, awareness, and support can help someone with PTSD feel safe and loved after their trauma.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy for seniors struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, and many other mental and emotional concerns. To connect with a licensed therapist, contact us today.

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