PTSD and Older Veterans
How is it possible to have PTSD 50 years after a war?
Because most World War II veterans came home to a hero’s welcome and a booming peacetime economy, many were able to make a successful adjustment to civilian life. They coped, more or less successfully, with their memories of traumatic events. Many had disturbing memories or nightmares, difficulty with work pressure or close relationships, and problems with anger or nervousness, but few sought treatment for their symptoms or discussed the emotional effects of their wartime experiences. They were expected by society to “put it all behind them,” forget the war, and get on with their lives.
But as they grew older, and went through changes in the pattern of their lives — retirement, the death of spouse or friends, deteriorating health and declining physical vigor — many experienced more difficulty with war memories or stress reactions, and some had enough trouble to be considered a “delayed onset” of PTSD symptoms—sometimes with other disorders like depression and alcohol abuse. Such PTSD often occurs in subtle ways: for example, a World War II veteran who had a long, successful career as an attorney and judge, and a loving relationship with his wife and family, might find upon retiring and having a heart attack that he suddenly felt panicky and trapped when going out in public. Upon closer examination, with a sensitive helpful counselor, he might find that the fear is worst when riding in his car, due to some unfinished trauma memories of deaths among his unit when he was a tank commander in the Pacific theater in World War II.
What should I do if I or an older person I know is a military veteran who may have PTSD?
First, don’t assume that feeling emotional about past memories or having some of the normal changes associated with growing older (such as sleep disturbance, concentration problems, or memory impairment) automatically mean PTSD. If a World War II or Korean conflict veteran finds it important, but also emotionally difficult, to remember and talk about war memories, help him or her by being a good listener — or help find a friend or counselor who can be that good listener.
Second, get information about war trauma and PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vet Centers and Medical Center PTSD Teams offer education for veterans and families—and they can provide an in-depth psychological assessment and specialized therapy if a veteran has PTSD. Books such as Aphrodite Matsakis’s I Can’t Get Over It (Oakland: New Harbinger, 1992) and Patience Mason’s Home from the War (High Springs, Florida: Patience Press, 1998) describe PTSD for veterans of all ages and for other trauma survivors, and its effect on the family.
Third, learn about the specialized therapies available at Vet Centers and VA Medical Centers. These include medications to help with sleep, bad memories, anxiety and depression, stress and anger management classes, counseling groups for PTSD and grief (some particularly desgned to bring together older war veterans to support one another in healing from war trauma or prisoner of war experiences), and individual counseling. Involvement of family members in the veteran’s care and in self-care for themselves also is an important part of treatment.
PTSD, N. (2013). PTSD and Older Veterans. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 29, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/ptsd-and-older-veterans/