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Understanding PTSD in the Elderly: Key Signs & Solutions

Updated: Jan 24

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Disclaimer: This article speaks about mental health disorders. It mainly teaches about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and briefly mentions potential triggers. Please find an alternative article to read if this may be a triggering topic for you. May I recommend: Family Visits: A Vital Connection in Senior Living or How Owning A Pet Can Improve the Life of a Senior.


With 7.8 billion earthly inhabitants, 1 in 4 will become affected by mental health concerns in their lifetime. Generalized anxiety, depression, OCD, and panic disorder make up just a few of the most common mental health disorders you or a loved one close to you may be struggling with. Delve into this specially written article and begin to understand a very common mental health disorder – PTSD . This article has been written for you, family members, friends, neighbors, and strangers alike to help understand a common mental health disorder that can go unseen by even those very close to you. Educating yourself on this topic can help the loved ones around you feel better understood since many do not or can not feel comfortable speaking about their experiences dealing with PTSD. You will then be able to offer your loved ones understanding, recognition, and security on their often silent journey in healing. And if you find yourself dealing with this mental illness, be kind to yourself and know seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness but strength.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a mental illness that develops after a very stressful, frightening, or disturbing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience. War veterans were the first group of people who received recognition for this condition after returning home from their stressful and often traumatic experience in war which was also coined with the term “shell shock”. Yet PTSD can also develop after other traumatizing experiences involving assault, whether physical or sexual in nature, serious accidents, being admitted into intensive care, losing a loved one, or torture. Those are just a few examples of what can cause someone to develop this mental health disorder. It is up to you to be understanding with loved ones (or yourself) that everyone's experiences in a situation range and may be different from one another. Just because you may find someone handling a situation better, you or your loved one may not have the right tools yet to be at the same healing point. 

Senior woman sitting on the end of her bed, sad.

The Signs & Symptoms

Like various other mental health disorders, symptoms can range from mild to severe. PTSD can share symptoms of various other mental health disorders and that’s why it is always recommended to visit a professional when trying to assess what is best for your situation. Plus, it is not uncommon for PTSD to coexist with other mental health disorders. Here is a list of symptoms you may find senior loved ones silently battling:

Intrusive thoughts & memories

  • Recurrent, distressing memories involving the traumatic event

  • Reliving the traumatic event in vivid detail (flashbacks)

  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event

  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to things that remind you or a loved one of said event


  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event

  • Avoiding people, places or activities that remind you of the traumatic event

  • Negative changes in thinking and mood

  • Feeling emotionally numb

  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Difficulty feeling positive emotions

  • Feeling detached from family and friends

  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

  • Hopelessness about the future

Changes in physical and emotional reactions (also known as arousal symptoms)

  • Self destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Always being on guard for danger

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behaviors

  • Being easily startled or frightened

  • Feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt or shame

A head sculpture with a diagram of the brain.

Why does it develop?

There are many theories as to why this disorder develops in people after they experience stressful or traumatic situations, which include these top three:

It’s a survival mechanism…

One suggestion believes that PTSD is a result of an instinctive mechanism the body utilizes to help be well prepared for any future traumatic events such as the one you have already endured. The “flashbacks” are your body’s way of reminding you exactly what happened so you can be better prepared if it happens again. The feeling of anxiety or being “on edge” develops so you can have a better reaction time in the future. 

Although this is a plausible reason as to why PTSD develops, it is actually very unhelpful because it leaves your loved one in a state of shock and unable to move or accomplish day-to-day tasks. 

It’s due to higher adrenaline levels…

Normally when your body is met with a traumatic or stressful experience, its natural reaction is to create stress hormones like adrenaline which will put you into “fight or flight”. Studies show that people with PTSD continue to produce excess amounts of these “fight or flight” hormones even when there is no longer any danger, resulting in the numbed emotions and hyperarousal some people with PTSD experience. 

Or, it’s a change in the way your brain functions… 

The hippocampus is an important part of the brain that's responsible for memory and emotions. Brain scans taken from people who have PTSD show that their hippocampus appears smaller in size. It’s believed that these changes could induce fear, anxiety, memory issues, and flashbacks. The malfunctioning hippocampus could make it more difficult to process flashbacks and nightmares, creating an environment in which people with PTSD may live longer in fear. 

A grandma and grandpa with their family sitting on a beach with sparklers.

How to overcome PTSD

To start this section, it is important to mention that healing from PTSD takes time, effort, and understanding. This recovery may not appear the same for everyone and may not be linear in progression, and that’s okay! So, be gentle with yourself or your loved ones.

PTSD can appear different in everyone, have different triggers, different causes, and so many other varying differences. Still, one thing that will always be a constant is the fact that there are steps that can help you better manage the symptoms of this disorder. At this time, there is no solid cure but individuals with PTSD have found treatments such as psychotherapy, medication, and self-work have improved their lives greatly. 

Types of psychotherapies

  • Talk therapy: This is the traditional therapy most everyone is familiar with. It involves an individual sitting down with a trained therapist or counselor who will listen to you scream, shout, or cry about your current situation and be there to help you find answers to your problems without judging you. 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of psychotherapeutic treatment helps individuals learn how to identify and change their destructive or disturbing thought patterns with guidance from a trained therapist. This could also involve gradual exposure to your triggers and learning how to change these unwanted thoughts to better associations.

  • Exposure therapy: Another form of psychotherapy that gradually exposes you to things, situations, or experiences that you fear and helps you learn how to manage your reactions and change your thought processes for the better.

Management through medication

Medication can play a big part in someone's life who may be healing and recovering from PTSD. Speak with a psychiatrist about the options available for you and your specific situation, symptoms, and possible coexisting mental health disorders. 


Self-work for a better life

Although therapy and medication are both proven options for healing from PTSD, there are several resources available to practice in the comfort of your own home and things you can add to your daily routine that can promote your healing. These resources include educational books, workbooks, informational videos, exercise, self-care, and phone applications. 

Remember, healing from PTSD isn’t always linear and it is recommended that you speak with a healthcare professional to get the best help to overcome this psychological illness. If you are a family member or friend that recognizes the symptoms in a loved one, the first step to support them is understanding. Be patient and kind with your loved one and know that this step alone will help them move forward on their healing journey.


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