Older Veterans May Experience Delayed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

This month as we celebrate Veterans Day, Americans pay tribute to those who have served in the military. This includes many seniors and baby boomers who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts.

Old woman's hands holding an American flag

Elderly veteran with flagProfessionals in the field of aging are taking a new look at the health issues of these older veterans, members of the "Greatest Generation" and the "Baby Boom," some of whom are now experiencing delayed or increased service-connected disabilities as the result of injuries experienced in combat.

Some older veterans returned home from war with physical injuries that are now, years later, affecting their health. Many also dealt with psychological wounds, and geriatrics specialists from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) report that these older vets may suffer from long-untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (commonly called PTSD). This syndrome is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a person experiences a traumatic event such as combat, assault or a disaster.

The VA confirms that memories of wartime experiences can be upsetting long after completion of military service. Their figures show that more than half of all veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War experienced PTSD at some time. The violence of combat, the death of friends, feelings of guilt, the horrors witnessed in POW camps—these were sights and experiences that older vets were usually left to process on their own.

Most doctors and military personnel today are aware of PTSD, and know that treatment is available. But our older veterans came home from their wars during a time when this condition was poorly understood. As early as the Civil War and World War I, battle stress was called "soldier's heart" and "shell shock." Even as late as World War II and Vietnam, PTSD was considered a weakness, not an illness. Soldiers were discharged with the suggestion that they "get over it" and return quickly to their old lives stateside. Studies show that very few veterans talked much about their wartime experiences upon their return.

This silence exacerbates the PTSD many older vets are now confronting. The old saying "time heals all wounds" generally does not apply in this case. We now know that untreated, hidden PTSD may come to the forefront as people grow older, when the changes associated with aging cause a resurgence of symptoms. "Life review"—the taking stock of our lives that is part of old age—can dredge up old memories that must be confronted. Illness and disability, reduced income, retirement, the death of spouse … all create stress that makes it more challenging to cope with the effects of previous trauma. The VA reports that living in a nursing home may trigger traumatic memories of confinement for some former POWs. Ironically, even adopting a healthier lifestyle can bring buried trauma to the surface when veterans give up the alcohol or "workaholism" they have used for years as a coping mechanism.

The VA urges older veterans to seek help if they are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD. Those symptoms might include:

  • Reliving wartime events, sometimes triggered by loud noises, news coverage or other reminders of past traumatic experiences.
  • Sleep problems, including insomnia and nightmares.
  • Avoiding any reminders that would bring back trauma-related memories.
  • Feeling numb and detached from one's surroundings.
  • Difficulty discussing the events and expressing feelings.
  • Feeling edgy, keyed up, easily startled and/or frequently angry.

People with PTSD are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. They may experience relationship problems with friends, loved ones and co-workers. The VA reports that the stress and anxiety of PTSD also raises the risk of cognitive impairment. The opposite also is true: Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can increase the symptoms of PTSD.

Help Is Available

The VA offers these recommendations:

  • Specialized counseling helps PTSD patients identify and deal with trauma-related thoughts. It’s important that the professional is trained in both PTSD and the aging process.
  • Certain medications may be effective, but it is important that the right drug is prescribed.
  • Take care of the mind, body and spirit by exercising, eating well and becoming engaged in the community, perhaps through volunteering.
  • Talking with others who understand can bring great comfort. Many vets report that support groups are the best treatment of all. Senior veterans gain insight and understanding from others who have experienced war—and they reap emotional benefits by offering their own insights to younger vets.
  • Being open with family and friends about PTSD helps those close to the patient understand the cause of sleep problems, anger, nervousness and other symptoms. The veteran’s treatment can benefit his or her loved ones and bring a new closeness. Family members, too, may benefit from counseling or a support group.

Some older veterans hesitate to seek treatment, fearing a stigma attached to psychological disorders. These seniors should be reassured that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, but instead is a result of the service they gave and sacrifices they made for their country. The VA says, "If you are an older veteran, you may have served many years ago, but your military experience can still affect your life today. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most of all, try not to feel bad or embarrassed to ask for help. Asking for help when you need it is a sign of wisdom and strength.”

More Information From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The VA offers PTSD treatment for those who qualify. See "PTSD Treatment Programs in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs."

The National Center for PTSD offers information for veterans, families and professionals.

The VA's AboutFace campaign focuses on helping veterans of every age recognize PTSD symptoms and find help. The site includes moving videos of senior veterans discussing their experiences.

Visit the VA’s Geriatrics and Extended Care resources to learn about services for elderly veterans. This includes services that can be provided in the home of a veteran (or surviving spouse) who needs care.  

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.