VA taking on the challenges of aging with PTSD

Strategies that help older Veterans


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Mary Martin.

New challenges appear with age. Those challenges can make the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more noticeable, cause them to come back after many years or even to occur for the first time.

“It really wasn’t until after I retired and moved to be with my family that the [PTSD] symptoms began to be bothersome and disrupt my life, disrupt my family’s life,” says Mary Martin, an Air Force Veteran.

Don’t assume that these changes are a given or that it’s just what happens with getting older. Memories or impacts of trauma can be addressed at any age. You’re never too old to get help, and older adults can benefit from effective PTSD treatments, even for people who experienced trauma decades ago.

It’s common for older adults to minimize and deny the pain they experience from past traumas. They’re more likely to try to cope with these issues by themselves instead of seeking mental health treatment. However, strategies that once seemed to help with PTSD symptoms can be more difficult to maintain as people get older.

Common challenges and strategies

You’re never too old to get help.

Dr. Elissa McCarthy, clinical psychologist at the National Center for PTSD, and Dr. Joan Cook, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, shared some common challenges faced by older adults and strategies for how to deal with those challenges:

  • CHALLENGE: More free time. Increased amounts of free time can make unpleasant memories more frequent.
    STRATEGY: Create structure and maintain a routine or organized schedule. Spend more time on hobbies or doing other enjoyable activities that you may not have made time for earlier in life. For example, learn to play an instrument, bake, start a blog or make a scrapbook with old photos.
  • CHALLENGE: Loss of purpose. Retirement can be challenging if work was a large part of your identity.
    STRATEGY: Learn new skills or volunteer. For example, many older Veterans enjoy giving back by mentoring Servicemembers or younger Veterans.
  • CHALLENGE: Loss of loved ones.
    STRATEGY: Having a network of supportive people is important. Maintain relationships with people you care about and make new friends, too. For example, look for social groups who enjoy your hobbies or an activity you want to learn.
  • CHALLENGE: Changes in physical ability.
    STRATEGY: Replace hobbies with other similar activities. For example, if poor eyesight makes reading difficult, try audiobooks or podcasts instead. For those who are homebound or have limited mobility, there are other options, like telehealth, for receiving counseling and care from home.
  • CHALLENGE: Medical problems. Living with untreated PTSD can make other mental and physical health issues worse.
    STRATEGY: Don’t assume this is how aging needs to be, be proactive in managing health conditions and get treatment for PTSD symptoms that arise.

Symptoms may worsen

As people age, their PTSD symptoms may suddenly appear or become worse, causing them to act differently. It may be unsettling to see these changes in a loved one, but it’s nothing to fear. Changes are common and treatment can help. If a loved one is living with PTSD, these tips can help:

  • Take time to understand what friends or loved ones went through and what they’re now experiencing as they live with the symptoms of PTSD.
  • Be supportive and nonjudgmental. Think about how to respond better if a loved one says they’ve experienced trauma or may have PTSD. Responding negatively, even unintentionally, can shut someone down. Thank them for sharing their personal story with you.
  • Connect them with care. If being the main support person for a loved one becomes too much to handle, connect them to help and remain in a loving, supporting role. Don’t forget that loved ones need help and support, too.
  • Give hope. Understand that symptoms can come and go throughout different times in a person’s life. Remind loved ones that they’ve successfully coped in the past, and can do it again.

Visit the National Center for PTSD website for information, videos and tools to help manage PTSD. For more information on older adults with PTSD, download the Understanding PTSD and Aging booklet.

If you care about someone with PTSD, download the Understanding PTSD: A Guide for Family and Friends booklet to learn more about how to support your loved one and take care of your own needs.


Joan Cook, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the National Center for PTSD Evaluation Division and an associate professor in the Yale School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. Elissa McCarthy, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and PTSD Consultation Program consultant with the National Center for PTSD.

Author

VAntagePoint Contributor

— VAntage Point Contributors provide insight and perspective on a wide range of Veterans issues. If you’d like to contribute a story to VAntage Point, learn how you can submit a guest blog at http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/how-to-submit-a-guest-post/

Comments

  1. Paul R. Barker    

    I was injured while on active duty aboard a us minesweeper and suffered from severe cluster headaches. I was removed from the ship and placed in the Naval Hospital in San Diego. I spent three months in confinement and treatment, then was sent before a medical board. The Doctors at Balboa Hospital Naval Hospital recommended medical discharge. But the Navy said no to that, and i stayed another seven years instead. I was diagnosed with PTSD and drug addiction to alcohol dependency but i never used alcohol or any drugs. I filed several times with the VA to get some help but have always been denied. I am now using the civilian doctors and medical clinics and am doing better. I plan on refiling with VA.

  2. Michael carnes    

    Patience is a must, but attitude towards the VA demanding benefits is often seen. I am very appreciative for the help and medical care I receive. Nobody is perfect, and sometimes it’s the facility that is failing, heard from certain areas. DAV and the American Legion are some fine Vets who extremely had helped me and thousands of others. I would definitely not be alive today without the VA. Good luck

  3. Stephen R Apodaca    

    And I thought the VA had changed?
    That’s why I had never filed a claim.

    1. Steve Eckert    

      Same old VA as it was in the early 70’s…denials. After 2 refusals I had to hire a lawyer to get a ptsd disability…she used to work at the VA doing claims so she knew how it worked (or didn’t work), 20% fee. That is crazy paying to get compensation. I wrote to several Senators saying they should give all Veterans $1 million, shut the VA hospitals and privatize the VA so we vets can go to our local hospitals. Many of us Vietnam Veterans just don’t trust the Government anymore!

  4. Jerry Deutsch    

    thank you for all comments you guys made, will try again with my one day they gave me for combat, after 3yrs 6 MTHS.
    in freezing Korean weather.

  5. Roger Belanger    

    Yes I believe that PTSD gets worse with age because I had 3 major traumas in the military that is seared in my brain. In the following years I had multiple major traumas that has also haunted me. It compounded my earlier traumas which added layers of traumas to those already existing traumas, If you take a three strand string and wrap them around each other that’s the first three traumas. Then I had five other traumas in civilian life, that is an added five more strands. Then you add the first three strands and it all becomes intertwined and that almost forms a rope that has compounded everything together and that causes me to have multiple triggers and flashbacks everyday and that my friends makes it awful to live my days in a peaceful manner. Everything becomes harder to cope with as I age. If I didn’t have a loving family I would not exist.

  6. david timpany    

    After 55 years I had not understood or thought I was qualified for care. Then some vets told me I needed to go to the VA. Now I’m still falling through cracks in the system; but it is sloooly getting improved!!
    Nexus and records that were burned up in the St. Louis 1974 V.A. files still leave some wide open cracks.
    Having my congressman look into files that are still closed to many.

  7. Patrick -Bryan    

    Good luck with that, if you are a pre 911 Vet, you will go to the bottom of the list, can take 10 20 30 years to get a claim decision for a pre 911 Vet thanks to the WWP an Doke Foundation!! Dont believe what the VBA or VHA tells you, do your homework, and keep copies of everything as the VA will destroy records!! I know, has happened to me!!

    1. Dennis McCloud    

      I’m pre-911, I received 70% 10 months after applying for benefits due to PTSD, The DAV filed an appeal and 30 days later I was awarded 100% permanent and total. The system does work.

      1. Mc Garrett    

        So glad you received what you deserve. I turn down what offered to me. However, my V A therapist
        Convince Me to apply. 2001. I was assigned total and permanent from 1968 as Navy Wave.

      2. Jamie Mackin    

        Dennis I have been 70% for years how did you go about fighting to get it to be 100% the did raise me from 60 to 70%.

  8. Joyce Susan Hille    

    TRUMP HOTLINE NUMBER (855) 948-2311
    24/7 CALL IT, you will get help and someone WILL listen to you

    Go see VSO in your area, go see the VA advocate at the hospital

    Don’t stop, don’t give up….I know you want to….but YOU are not a burden…
    I’ve heard it many time he/she must have been having a BAD day…it’s the VA catch phrase…..
    but “I” know how badly you feel..it took courage to ask for help…the right person is there

    you just haven’t talked to them yet..keep trying …don’t give up…get mad!!!

  9. Michael DelGiacco    

    Why would someone with mental/emotional issues go to the Charleston SC VA? I called because I needed help. Not full on call 911 for help, but needed assistance getting over some trying times. The folks who answered the phone were rude, condescending and their out was well if this isn’t good enough call 911. After 38 years of sacrifice I was hopfull to be treated a bit better. People with some skill or training should be the Face of the VA when veterans in need make that initial call, not some disinterested receptionist at the VA answering the phone for a paycheck and benefits. It’s actually quite sad.

    1. Terry Smith    

      call 1-800-273-8255 press 1 or http://www.veteranscrisisline.net hopefully this will help you!

    2. Mc Garrett    

      Try not to take their attitude personally. I know that’s easier said than done. V.A. culture in Chattanooga is horrible. Therefore had To purchase private insurance just To be treated humanly. To this day nothing has change at least for women. Good luck

  10. Derel Schrock    

    So will the VA allow claims for ongoing PTSD for us elderlies? I’m having to go to a shrink. Thanks. Derel Schrock

    [Editor: Veterans can file compensation claims for injuries or medical conditions that occurred as a result of active service. Claims must include a current medical diagnosis; evidence of an injury, event or medical condition in your service records; and a nexus from a doctor linking the former to the latter. You can learn more and file a claim, here: https://www.va.gov/disability/ ]

    1. AL    

      Call again and ask to see the Social Worker. Good Luck.

      1. Elsie Geraldine Farris    

        They told me the same thing about my records – that they were burned up in the fire. I asked for a copy of my DD214. They sent it to me! So I got back to them with the comment that if they had and could send me my DD214 (discharge paper), they could access the rest of my records. Guess what! Suddenly they were “found” and send to my VA provider!!!

        Many records did perish in the fire, but many survived and have to be requested more than once, and with the acknowledgement that not all records were burned. Ask for your discharge papers first; then, if you get them, go back like I did and request the rest with the acknowledgement that if your discharge was available, surely the rest of your papers are as well.
        Just a thought!I
        And on the PTSD front, I have it and it took me from 1965 to last year to get up the guts to apply, as I am a woman, and proving PTSD from a woman’s perspective isn’t easy. I kept trying, got written statement from friends, family, physicians, etc., and filed and re-filed. Finally got it in 2019. So keep trying!!!

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