PTSD in Older Adults
For most people, feelings of anxiety, fear and worry are perfectly normal reactions to experiencing a traumatic event or injury. Older adults, however, may be at a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event, compared to other groups of people in our society.
Learn more about PTSD in older adults and which treatments are most helpful to seniors experiencing symptoms of this condition.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
It is natural to feel shaken by a tragedy that is broadcast on the news, or the memory of a frightening accident or illness you have experienced; in fact, according to the Sidran Institute of Traumatic Stress Education & Advocacy, approximately “70% of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives” and experience these common feelings.
Extreme trauma on the other hand, is not as common and can lead to lasting feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror. Of the 70% of adults who have experienced a traumatic event, it is believed that up to 20% of these people may “go on to develop PTSD” as a result of extreme trauma.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by an extremely traumatic event. It is characterized by three main types of symptoms:
- Avoidance and emotional numbness of activities, places and people that are reminders of the trauma.
- Increased arousal such as being easily angered and irritated, difficulty concentrating or sleeping and feeling jumpy.
- Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks and nightmares.
PTSD is a clinical condition that affects a person’s emotional, mental and physical wellness “for at least one month following a traumatic event” and may not present itself symptomatically until several months or even years later.
PTSD in Older Adults
Seniors may be at a higher risk for developing PTSD following a traumatic event or having symptoms re-emerge later in life, compared to other groups of people in our society. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “role changes and functional losses could make coping with memories of earlier trauma more challenging” for older adults.
Such stressors could include:
- Cognitive impairment
- Decreased sensory abilities
- Decreased social support
- Increased health problems
- Loss of loved ones
- Other stressors and causes of functional decline
- Reduced income
As well, with age comes less opportunity to ‘self-medicate.’ Many people tend to manage post-traumatic stress symptoms with “avoidance-based coping strategies” such as burying themselves in work – strategies that become less available and effective as people age.
Without the access or ability to control symptoms with these unhealthy coping mechanisms, older adults with PTSD often experience a re-emergence or worsening of symptoms.
PTSD in Older Adults Following a Serious Fall
Research suggests that there is more compelling evidence that older people are at higher risk of developing PTSD, specifically as a result of a fairly common occurrence that affects one in three seniors over the age of 65 each year: falling.
A recent study conducted by the department of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York showed that out of 100 seniors over the age of 65 who had experienced a fall resulting in hospital admission, 27% experienced symptoms of PTSD.
This statistic is especially concerning as falls are the leading cause of hospitalization for seniors in the U.S., with over 1.6 million older adults hospitalized each year as the result of a fall. Arm, hand, hip, pelvis and spine fractures are the most common injuries that occur and can take months to recover from.
The study found that there were several indicators that a senior may be prone to developing PTSD after a fall, including:
- Area of injury: Those with injuries to the back or chest were more likely to experience PTSD symptoms.
- Circumstances surrounding the fall: Those who had to wait for help to arrive and those who required hospitalization were more likely to experience PTSD symptoms.
- Education: Those with less education were more likely to experience PTSD symptoms.
- Employment status: Those who are unemployed were more likely to experience PTSD symptoms.
- Gender: Woman were more likely to experience PTSD symptoms.
While PTSD can be pervasive if left unaddressed, there are effective treatments including medication and therapy, which can be very helpful to seniors experiencing symptoms of this condition. In particular, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), helps to “modify distorted behaviors, emotions and thoughts” and has proven very effective for people experiencing PTSD.
Have you, a parent or a senior loved one experienced any symptoms of PTSD after a fall? We’d like to hear your experiences and stories in the comments below.
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