Community Blog

Mental Health Month: Recognizing Mental Trauma in Seniors

By Vicki and Brian Day

Janet, a healthy 70-year old, had been the victim of a serious car accident nearly three months ago. She broke her leg and her wrist and recovery was slow. The other driver, who caused the accident by driving drunk, did not make it. Janet’s daughter, Mandy, had hired a senior care agency to help her mother with her personal and home care needs, thinking that would keep Janet somewhat independent and able to get around.

Things seemed to be going fairly well until the senior care aid shared some observations with Mandy, such as Janet’s poor appetite, lethargy, increasing irritability and her refusal to ride in the car. Mandy knew her mother had not been sleeping well either, and had been drinking a little to help her get to sleep. After a few late night false alarms where Janet claimed she felt like she was having a heart attack, Mandy knew it was time for a mental health evaluation for her mother.

Mental trauma can affect even the most resilient people, and it can lead to a number of challenges in continuing their normal lives. In the weeks and months after the traumatic event, it’s possible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Seniors are highly susceptible to PTSD because they often encounter a number of highly impactful events in their lives, such as death of a loved one, chronic illnesses, accidents, assault, exposure to injury or death and more. Family members need to learn how to recognize the signs of PTSD and arrange for their elderly loved one to get professional help.

PTSD Symptoms in Seniors

The traumatic event can send a person’s system into shock, but once the immediate exposure is over, many people seem to return to “normal.” PTSD symptoms often show up a few weeks or a few months after the encounter. Symptoms include nightmares, anxiety, withdrawal from friends and family, irrational behavior, panic attacks, irritability, lethargy, and self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse. Other symptoms include depression, avoiding enjoyable activities, insomnia, cycles of guilt and shame and compulsive behavior.

Because many of these symptoms are similar to other age-related conditions, it may be tricky to initially diagnose PTSD in seniors. The symptoms can also appear intermittently, such as when the senior is stressed or otherwise reminded of the event. That’s why it’s a good idea for family members to get feedback from senior care aides, friends and other family to get a clearer picture of what the elderly loved one is going through.

Treating PTSD in Seniors

When seniors are struggling with PTSD, the only real solution is for them to do therapy with a licensed professional that specializes in mental trauma. Together, the victim and the therapist will set up some goals and work on reaching them a little at a time. Depending on circumstances, the therapist may also recommend medication to ease anxiety or depression. Seniors with mental trauma will definitely benefit from regular sessions.

Seniors are the age group that are least likely to get mental health treatments, due to social stigma, lack of insurance, denial, and lack of resources like transportation. Family members need to clear as many obstacles as they can so that their elderly loved one has all their mental health care needs met and give them a chance to develop a support system that will help them handle their PTSD.