As we are quickly approaching the holidays and due to the fact that 2020 has been anything but “a regular year”, I want to touch on a topic close to my heart…Seniors.
More often than not, the subject of Seniors and Trauma is often dismissed or equated to Dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is normal in life to reflect on losses, personal history and role changes; seniors tend to these more often than any age group. If a senior has experienced trauma, he or she will most likely tend to think about those subjects on a daily basis and because of it; more often than not; they tend to be misunderstood.
Older adults with history of trauma may experience resurface memories and the impact of traumatic events at a time in life when their ability to engage in “avoidance thinking” or “avoidance behavior” has been diminished–in other words, as we get older we tend drop the pretenses and get real about who we are, what we like, whom we like and why.
I once heard a speaker on the subject of “genuine personality” explain to us how the most truthful and genuine stages of our lives are when we are children and when we are seniors; it’s the shit in the middle which is tricky to navigate; specially if one buys into the delusion of fake positivism and the avoidance of one’s own traumas or personality traits which may need work.
Seniors who have endured trauma are not being “Negative” nor are they trying to “Ruin your day” by sharing with you (over and over) things about their lives; things they may have kept locked inside for far too long.
During a study on Seniors and Trauma, it was discovered that if a senior retold the same “Jolly” story over and over again, then that particular person was found to be “a sweet old man” or woman–someone who has a “positive outlook” on life. However if a senior who experienced trauma; and kept it locked up most of his years; talked about the hurtful events, he was considered bitter, negative, annoying or simply dismissed as “he doesn’t know what he is talking about”. The study exposed a great difference in ratios on “understanding” vs. ” non understanding” individuals, with the latter being the higher number. The study also left clear one very important factor “hiding trauma doesn’t work”.
The limited research that exists on trauma and aging typically focuses on people who experience formal Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (having endured or witness a traumatic event) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (continuous exposing to traumatic events); specially among veterans and survivors of disasters. Less attention has been focused on how Post Traumatic experiences such as Violence, Sexual Violence, Physical Violence and Emotional Abuse experienced earlier in life impact the mental health of older adults. This lack of knowledge may be due to the fact that post traumatic experiences are not often validated or are unrecognized because of other disorders such as depression, dementia, anxiety, substance abuse may be more obvious; as such these conditions may be treated and studied while underlying trauma goes unnoticed and unresolved.
As the name implies, PTSD is an anxiety disorder which can occur after exposure to physical or psychological trauma and produces symptoms such as continuous unpleasant thoughts and memories of the traumatic experience, emotional detachment of loved ones; especially those closest to them; and sleep problems.
“Older adults diagnosed with PTSD were much more likely to develop psychiatric syndrome than those without PTSD. Depression and anxiety were the two most common conditions. These results indicate exposure to trauma was common to older adults currently living with PTSD, anxiety and irritability are a common consequence” Dr. Carsten Spitzer of Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-University (Germany)
A report published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded the chances of this disorder being acute in older people are 4 times higher than in younger people. Such would be the result of living a life concealing hurtful events and trying to fit in; that is why older adults who endured repetitive trauma are more likely to develop a psychiatric syndrome.
“Symptoms of the Trauma or Abuse may appear years after the event took place. A number of characteristics become apparent: Intrusive memories (involuntary reliving of the memories/nightmares), Difficulty concentrating, mood swings, irritability….” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry
Not everyone develops this disorder in identical situations; there are those who are more prone to it (have no real support system, are always expected to be the caregiver–never the person in need) Also those more “prone to it” are those who experienced continuous abuse and who spent their lives hiding negative circumstances which marked them. They may have experienced traumatic events during childhood/early adulthood and were given no support after the event. Seniors who endured abuse quietly are often left feeling as if the only way they can get love and approval from their family is by shutting up and agreeing with everything that is set to them; in doing so, their PTSD gets triggered even more.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Seniors is a real thing. Emotional unhealed trauma from the past may increase the risk of dementia. Often memories are triggered when conflict arises and if the person who was abused isn’t given room to express his or herself, he or she may “explode”. Irritability is a natural reaction to feeling threatened, over time the brain cannot handle the amount of stress chemicals being released and starts to affect short term memory ( this tends to happen more frequently) and long term memory (this happens less frequently).
With their memory being affected and unable to express themselves congruently, family and friends tend to make the mistake of labeling or accusing seniors of imagining things. It is true that by the time this “time bomb” explodes, the senior is left shaky and unable to always accurately know the sequence of events–the mind may start to “play tricks” on them ( past and present often get mixed)–however this is not to say seniors are “imagining” or simply being “difficult”; it means the person suffered and is trying to let go.
Sadly in our present day, due to ignorance and the so called “New Age Movement of Positive Thinking” (in other words denial, which is very different than focusing on the positive while working on that which needs to be healed) has fueled the terrible concept that to let go means “to conceal and shut up”. This concept works well with anyone who does not want to take responsibility for his or her actions and would rather pretend nothing happen. Are we so afraid of facing our lives that without hesitation of what the words actually imply, we are capable of saying “mom, dad…You need to let go, you are stuck in the past”.
To Let Go means to Release; that is exactly what our seniors are trying to do by talking about it…he or she is trying to release years of hidden pain, shame and anger. Only by speaking about the hurts and feeling heard can the process of Real Letting go transpired. Only then, can the person feel validated and start to move from the past to the present. The same concept goes for forgiveness. To tell a senior; or anyone for that matter; to forgive because forgiveness is what a good person does is a lie. One cannot release the hold the event has on you without doing the mental and spiritual work–choosing to avoid the work is to choose to conceal and hide. Asking our seniors to let go or to forgive without healing is to ask them to once more sacrifice themselves. Real healing and Real forgiveness can only happen when one consciously does the work; organically one starts to release and let go of things. Organically one learns to recognize letting go doesn’t mean allowing any more abuse. Organically one learns boundaries are healthy and those who really love us will not want us to sacrifice our mind and spirit in exchange for making others comfortable.
Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should be done by a mental health professional, who in addition to prescribing some antidepressant, will use some psychological therapy at the same time. Trauma Cannot be kept hidden; our seniors who are battling with PTSD are proof of that. Instead of shaming, demeaning, dismissing or ignoring our seniors who are suffering with PTSD, we should be more open to listening. There is no better way to proof to ourselves what we are really made of and what are values really are, than by how we treat our seniors. Unless your parents have been and are abusive (in which case you need boundaries; in order to protect both) there is no excuse for treating our seniors as if they were at the bottom of the scale on things.
Our seniors are not here to “play a role” for us–they are human beings. The only way we can enjoy the wisdom many of these beautiful souls have to offer is by listening and giving them room to express themselves; let’s not forget one day we will be in their place and how you treated them is how you shall be treated.
Words to others don’t matter, ACTIONS DO. Actions reveal who we are at our core, therefore with the holidays upon us, I invite you to consider your actions towards seniors. If you are a senior and had a relatively “normal life“– free of abuse– consider yourself blessed and hopefully you have a mature mind and a kind soul as to not judge those who did not enjoy the circumstances you did. Christmas is near; a time of healing, rebirth and renewal; it’s not about the presents; for the biggest gift you can give isn’t anything you can buy at a store….the gift is within you…it is you.
I hope you take a moment of your life to become introspective and analyze your position in life. I hope the spirit of Christmas touches your heart more than your wallet, and I hope you give yourself and someone who needs it the biggest gift out there….the gift of love.