Although many older adults experience well-being and satisfaction in their later years, there are a number of people age 65 and older who will suffer mental health concerns. One such growing concern for the older population is post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is often associated with traumatic experiences as a result of war or sexual assault. However, it can also develop after a person suffers any extremely distressing event, such as the sudden death of a loved one, a serious traffic accident, being robbed, childhood abuse or neglect, or any other significant shock.

Symptoms of PTSD can appear or reappear as a result of trauma long ago, or symptoms may be a result of recent trauma. Although it is important to determine if an event is recent or historical, symptoms should be recognized, and, if diagnosed, treatment should be sought.

While many people will not develop PTSD, the number of people exposed to trauma is significant. It is estimated that 70% to 90% of adults 65 and over have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lifetimes.

Warning signs that may lead to a PTSD diagnosis include:

A feeling of intense fear, helplessness and/or horror.

A newly identified inability to concentrate.


Persistent anxiety or worrying.

Signs of depression and/or despair.

Withdrawal from usual activities, hobbies, and contact with family and friends.

Frequent references to death, dying and/or suicide.

Increased irritability and/or restlessness.

Disruptive sleep.

Language that shifts from past- to present-tense verbs.

PTSD often co-occurs with physical or other psychiatric conditions, particularly major depression, traumatic brain injury and chronic pain. Furthermore, older adults are more likely to report physical concerns or pain rather than emotional difficulties, especially if the traumatic event happened years earlier. Therefore, PTSD is often overlooked in the aging population. 

One tool for determining if an older person may be experiencing PTSD is the Primary Care PTSD Screen. This is a four-item screening tool to help identify risk of PTSD. The PC-PTSD asks the following four questions, each with a yes or no response.

In your life, have you ever had any experiences that were so frightening, horrible or upsetting that, in the past month, you:

Had nightmares about it or thought about it when you did not want to?

Tried hard not to think about it or went out of your way to avoid situations that reminded you of it?

Were constantly on guard, watchful or easily startled?

Felt numb or detached from others, activities or your surroundings?

According to numerous sources, treatment for PTSD is the same regardless of age, although all treatment should be customized for each person. The most common treatment is counseling, which means talking about the experience with a therapist on your own or in a group.

There are different types of counseling for PTSD, according to WebMD:

Cognitive therapy, in which you learn to change thoughts about the trauma that are not true or that cause you stress.

Exposure therapy, in which you talk about the traumatic event over and over, in a safe place, until you have less fear.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, in which you focus on distractions like hand movements and sounds while talking about the traumatic event.

Individuals who feel they are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or believe a loved one may be struggling with it should bring their concerns to their primary care physician, who will be able to screen further for potential PTSD. People may also call SeniorCare’s Information and Referral Department at 978-281-1750, and one of the agency’s information and referral care specialists will provide assistance.

Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging.  

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