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Five stones stacked up on each other.

Understanding Trauma and Aging

July 22, 2019

by Pamela Leland, Executive Director

If I asked you to hold a 1 pound weight at arm’s length for 1 minute, you might find this easy.

If I asked you to hold a 1 pound weight at arm’s length for 10 minutes, you might be able to do this but might find it hard.

If I asked you to do this for an hour – 60 minutes – you would likely find it impossible.

But what has changed? The 1 pound weight remains the same. You remain the same.

What has changed is the pain.

What has changed is your ability to endure.

So it is with unresolved trauma.

Trauma is defined as an event or series of events, often unexpected, that is physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening, and results in lasting adverse effects on an individual’s functioning or physical, psycho-social, emotional or spiritual well-being.

Trauma can affect individuals, groups or entire communities. It can affect anyone, at any time, at any age; trauma does not discriminate.

Trauma is a part of life; most of us understand this. We will lose loved ones, be in car accidents or have a serious illness. We may be victims of abuse, assault or other violence. We will experience natural disasters or man-made events such as war.

All of these are traumatic events. We will all suffer significant, albeit temporary, consequences. For many, the immediate or enduring effects of trauma will be met with resilience.

Others, however, may suffer more acute consequences. And what we don’t understand or fully appreciate is that trauma left unresolved creates real and negative consequences on our overall well-being – both in the short-term and long-term. For some, it may develop into PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). One need only look at increasing rates of suicide among LGBT youth or military veterans to understand the risks of trauma left unaddressed.

Because we don’t understand or appreciate the impact of trauma, we don’t learn how to respond to trauma. We don’t build skills of resilience or create systems of support for ourselves. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’ll get over it … or worse, we blame ourselves for not being “strong enough” or “tough enough.”

Trauma and Aging

For today’s older adults, untreated trauma is all-too-common. This Silent Generation endured the Great Depression and its economic consequences and the destruction of individuals and families as a result of WWII or the wars in Korea and Vietnam. These are in addition to the various traumatic events that we each experience as part of living. We are only beginning to fully appreciate the impact of these collective and individual events on the generation that embraced “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Because of the stigma that has surrounded mental health for so many years, today’s older adults may have never named their experiences as traumatic. They simply pushed ahead and did what society or their culture expected of them. Consequently they are less likely to have sought help or support. So for today’s older adults, we are first likely to see the symptoms of unresolved trauma. These symptoms might include nightmares; sleeplessness; being easily startled; paranoia; outbursts of anger; feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame; anxiety; risky or self-destructive behaviors.

These consequences of unresolved trauma are emerging now for various reasons. Older adults, especially those who are fully retired or much older, have fewer duties or responsibilities to keep them busy. Their minds now have the space to remember thoughts and feelings long kept at bay. The news today can bring back memories of the past. The impact of declining health status can bring up old feelings of weakness and vulnerability. The strength it takes to “push on” and “push through” may be more than someone can continue to manage.

The weight has become too heavy.

As with any problem, the first step is to name it. Acknowledging an event or experience as traumatic is a first step toward healing. Recognize the feelings for what they are. No blame, no guilt.

Giving it a Name

Bringing it into the light of day – lessens its power. Then we can work to address the consequences of unresolved trauma. We can take steps to reduce its negative impacts on the quality of our life. For example, we can:

  • Be active – mentally and physically. Engage our thoughts on other things.
  • Spend time with positive people. Gratitude and optimism are contagious.
  • Share feelings with a close friend or family member. Talk with someone who cares about you and will support you.
  • Consider joining a support group with others who have experienced similar trauma.

If the symptoms persist or become severe, it is never too late to seek professional help. The answer to improved overall well-being may include psychological as well as medical support.

Trauma may be a part of life but it need not control us or negatively impact our overall well-being. Our ability to enjoy life may depend on our ability to invest in resolving pain that was experienced decades ago.

Printed in the Daily Local News on Wednesday, July 17, 2019.

[9:27 AM] Tim