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Senior Health In Veterans: Coping With Military PTSD Symptoms As You Age

Apr 07 2020

By Jess Walter

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam combat theater veterans aged over 60 was found at a lifetime prevalence of 16.9 percent in a 2016 study published by The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. PTSD is all too common an experience for veterans of any age, but some people find that their symptoms emerge and resurface as they get older. If you’re a retired veteran living with PTSD, there are several things you can do to help manage the symptoms and make life easier as you progress into old age, including resources you can access to help you find support.

Are you experiencing an increase in PTSD symptoms?

Symptoms of PTSD can increase as you age for a variety of reasons. Functional losses and changing roles like those experienced as you enter retirement can make coping with memories of past trauma more challenging. Some people navigate their symptoms when they’re younger through avoidance-based coping mechanisms (like throwing themselves into their work), and these may no longer be an option as they get older.

Life changes such as age-related health problems, a decrease in sensory capacity, the loss of a spouse and reduced income can all contribute and make you more vulnerable to PTSD symptoms arising. If you’re adjusting to a reduced income and find your symptoms are triggered, revisit your disability allowance: VA points are calculated on a combined rating for disabilities, and your PTSD symptoms count. Make sure that you’re receiving all the benefits you’re entitled to, which can help make your life more comfortable, as well as allowing you to access necessary medical treatment.

Small things you can do to manage your symptoms

Following a healthy lifestyle can’t erase your trauma or free you from PTSD, but engaging in positive mental health strategies can help you to manage your symptoms. Whether through reading, doing puzzles or socializing, it’s important to keep your mind engaged. Spending time outdoors is beneficial too, with research from the University of East Anglia linking being outside to a reduction of stress and high blood pressure, amongst other health benefits. Keeping your body active through regular exercise, gardening or voluntary work can help too, as can maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

Talking about your experiences

Talking to a friend who also has military experience can help you feel that you’re not alone. Your experiences may not be identical, but sharing them can help both of you to deal with your trauma. Investigate local support groups, particularly if you find yourself more isolated now that you’re retired. Feelings of loneliness can make PTSD symptoms worse, and joining a group can help you connect with others and manage your feelings. Talk to your friends and family too: talking about your experiences and feelings can help you to understand yourself, and it also enables those close to you to help you. 

It’s also important to seek professional help if your PTSD symptoms are affecting your sleep, behavior or overall mood. Many therapists specialize in PTSD and aging, and they will be able to advise you on possible treatments. In some cases, a professional may prescribe antidepressants; in others they may recommend psychological therapies, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Whether your PTSD symptoms are only just emerging or you have been managing them throughout your life post-service, it’s important to address them as you age. Remember the importance of a healthy lifestyle, talk to your peers, and seek professional support to help you process your feelings. Military trauma is a reality for many ex-service members, and finding ways to manage it can make your later years much more comfortable.