Senior Veterans and PTSD


Post-traumatic stress disorder, often referred to as PTSD, is unfortunately relatively common among veterans. Depending upon the year during which a person completed their military service, the incidence of PTSD ranges from anywhere between 11% - 30% of veterans, with older veterans – such as those who served during the Vietnam War – making up the highest percentage, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Serving in a war zone is stressful enough, but the politics surrounding the war, where it was fought, and what a person actually goes through during a war play a large part in contributing to PTSD and related problems[1].

Some of the oldest veterans in the United States today served in World War II. Out of the 16 million called to serve in the 1940s, about 300,000 are still alive, according to the Pew Research Center. Those individuals are among the oldest Americans with a median age of about 93 today. Those who served in the Vietnam War are now seniors, with a median age of about 71 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the median age for all veterans was 65, including those who served in Post-9/11 conflicts[2].

Those numbers mean that it’s entirely possible that you have an elderly loved one who was a veteran – or perhaps you yourself served our country, and might be dealing with PTSD.

What is PTSD?

The clinical definition of PTSD is “exposure to one or more traumatic event(s), which is defined as one that involved death or threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence.”[3]

Remember that it isn’t just military personnel who saw close combat in war who develop PTSD. It can also happen during training, especially if accidents are involved. It can be caused by losing someone close to you during the war, seeing the horrific fallout of wartime destruction, hearing the stories of war over and over (such as a psychologist or clergy might), or treating those who suffered injury. It can even be caused by military sexual trauma, or MST, suffered by both men and women during their time in the military. (This is much more common in women, however; 71% of female military personnel with PTSD have suffered sexual assault.)

Among veterans and current military service members who have been diagnosed with PTSD, only 30% to 40% seek help[4]. And not getting help can lead to serious consequences. The rate of suicide among veterans is higher than that of non-veterans, and the majority of veteran deaths by suicide occur among those who are between 55 - 74 years of age[5]. If you or your loved one is showing symptoms of PTSD or any other mental health issue, get help right now. Don’t wait!

What are the Symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD can start shortly after a traumatic event or can show up weeks, months, or even many years later. Sometimes the symptoms can be very strong and other times, they are barely noticeable. But if the symptoms show up and linger for more than a month and interfere with day-to-day life, PTSD might be the culprit. 

The symptoms vary from person to person. Those listed here are the most common[6]:

·         Reliving the event through nightmares or flashbacks.

·         Experiencing a “trigger” that induces the flashback, such as watching news reports, seeing an accident occur, hearing fireworks, or smelling the scent of smoke – these are just a few examples.

·         Avoidance of anything that might trigger a reminder of past events.

·         Staying very busy, thus leaving little time to slow down and think about what happened.

·         Chronic pain that seems to have no true physical cause[7]. Up to 35% of patients with chronic pain also have PTSD[8].

·         Feeling a great deal of negativity or pessimism.

·         Feeling numb and losing interest in things that used to bring pleasure.

·         Being unable to talk about what happened.

·         Forgetting about parts of traumatic events.

·         Being suspicious of everyone, even those who are close friends or family.

·         Engaging in risky behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol, taking up smoking, driving aggressively, or “thrill seeking.” A groundbreaking study in 1980 found that among Vietnam veterans who had PTSD, 74% of them also had an issue with substance abuse[9].

·         Feeling guilt or shame and wishing things were different.

·         Feeling on edge – this is known as hyperarousal. A person is on alert and looking out for danger everywhere they go.

·         Trouble concentrating and focusing for long periods of time.

·         Sleep difficulties, especially insomnia.

·         Startling easily to a sudden sound or sharp movement.

·         Bouts of anger, depression, thoughts of suicide, going through the stages of grief, or otherwise feeling all sorts of emotional disregulation. In fact, depression is actually three to five times more likely to show up in those with PTSD than others[10].

Anyone might experience all of these symptoms immediately following a traumatic event. This is normal. It becomes PTSD when those thoughts become intrusive and affect everything about your life, from school to work to relationships.

If you are seeing any sort of symptoms of PTSD in yourself or in those you love, it’s time to take action. One of the concrete, actionable things you can do is get a medical alert device for yourself or the person suffering from PTSD. Why? Sometimes, those flashbacks and nightmares can be stressful enough to trigger all sorts of unpleasant physical symptoms. When that happens, a person wants to be able to reach out right away, both for mental and emotional support as well as the physical care they need. Button alarms can bring peace of mind, knowing that help is always standing by, 24/7/365, which can help alleviate panic. If the symptoms become severe enough to require help from family, friends, neighbors, or EMS, simply press the button on the medical alert pendant or watch to get assistance right away.

What are Some Common Triggers?

What triggers a flashback for someone with PTSD depends upon their very personal experience of the events they went through. As you might imagine, some of the most common triggers among veterans of war are loud, sudden noises, such as a car backfiring or fireworks. These can sound like artillery, and that can take their mind right back to the place where the traumatic events occurred. But there can also be subtle triggers, such as a particular smell or a certain choice of words that spark a flashback. Here are a few other things that could trigger a flashback or other issue with PTSD:

·         Conversations or media coverage of traumatic events

·         Certain types of weather

·         Pressures or arguments about family, work, etc.

·         Funerals, hospitals, or any sort of medical treatment

·         Anniversaries of a trauma event, or even a specific time of day

·         People, locations, or things that bring the events to mind

·         Sights, sounds, or smells associated with the trauma

·         Being in a situation that feels dangerous, such as in the middle of a crowd

·         Physical sensations, such as extreme hunger or thirst

·         Any sensation that brings to mind injuries or pain

·         Certain emotions, such as feeling helpless

What happens when a trigger occurs? Some might have a panic attack. Some will have a flashback. Others might not react immediately, but will instead have horrible nightmares in the days following the reminders. And still others might have difficulty controlling their emotions and reactions when these things happen – that can lead to outbursts or even violence.

How to Help Someone with PTSD When Flashbacks Come

When helping someone else deal with the triggers of PTSD, be aware that depending upon how severe the reaction is, they might not allow you to help them – or for a brief time, they might not even realize you’re in the room. There are a few things you can do to help “ground” them and bring them back to the present moment:

·         Explain that they are having a flashback or panic attack, but that they are safe. What they are experiencing is in their head – it’s not real this time.

·         Encourage deep, slow breaths. The idea is to bring them back to the here and now.

·         Avoid sudden movements, stay quiet and calm, and ask them for permission before you touch them.

·         Remember that a person with PTSD might lash out when having a flashback. If this happens, remain calm, give your loved one plenty of physical space, speak with a low and slow tone, and ask how you can help. However, never allow yourself to become a victim of physical violence. Leave the room if your loved one becomes aggressive toward you.

If your loved one is prone to flashbacks and you are the primary family caregiver, utilizing medical alert technology is a good idea. The personal alarm button can allow you to call for help with one touch, explain the situation, and get assistance quickly.

In addition to getting an emergency response solution for your loved one (or for yourself), there are many other ways you can be supportive:[11]

·         Don’t apply pressure. When someone is suffering from PTSD, it might seem like getting them to talk about what they went through could help. But this might not be the case – it could even make them feel worse. Just be there and if they want to talk, listen.

·         Listen well. If your loved one wants to talk about the events over and over, let them. Don’t try to offer advice or tell them move on. Instead, listen patiently while they say what they need to say to unburden themselves.

·         Engage them in exercise. Moving in a rhythmic exercise, such as walking, running, or swimming, can ground a person and ease their mental health. Working out with your loved one can help you both feel energized and connected.

·         Create routines. One of the best things you can do for mental health – for you and for your loved one – is to establish firm routines. Structure, such as a set day to handle groceries and another day for laundry, or set meal times every day, can create a framework for calm.

·         Educate yourself. Dive into not only the symptoms and what you can do to help, but the treatment options available as well.

·         Take care of yourself. What your loved one has to say might be difficult for you to hear. If you need to reach out to someone to ensure you’re on an even emotional keel, do it. You can’t be a good listener if you are struggling yourself.

·         Help them get treatment. While PTSD is now well-known as a serious problem for veterans, when they do reach out for help, there are often long waiting lists for care at VA hospitals and clinics. Less than half of those military veterans who have PTSD receive treatment, thus leaving them on their own to deal with the issues they face. And if your loved one had anything other than an honorable or general discharge, they are not eligible for VA benefits at all[12].

Finally, invest in a medical alert system. These devices are right there at one’s fingertips to call for help if necessary. Make certain to select an emergency medical alert that can be used outside of the home, as many of the triggers for PTSD – such as loud noises or crowds – will happen outside of the house. And remember, for those who don’t like the idea of wearing a pendant, today’s medical alert watch is a sleek, handsome device that no one would ever guess was a link to emergency assistance.

Alert1 thanks our esteemed Veterans for their service and offers a Veteran’s Discount on all devices.