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Late Onset - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Often while enjoying a game of checkers with Allan, my 89-year-old friend, he would share his life story with me. Growing up during the Great Depression, he shared stories of how his family would get by financially through bootlegging and would tell me his stories of World War II. He was a Navy man and spent his time aboard a merchant marine ship; their cargo was fuel. He spoke of a fleet of these ships out in the Pacific Ocean. Imagine, as far as the eye can see, nothing but ships, full of pure aviation fuel. Allan said he felt like a sitting duck. Always in fear of being spotted by the enemy or someone aboard accidently causing just the right spark to cause a fire. He experienced near misses where ships nearly rammed the ship he was aboard. He was on his ship at port when another ship collided and exploded into the ship next to him. Allen would go on to tell me of his arrival at Omaha Beach, three days after the battle at Normandy, dead bodies floating all around him.

I arrived one day to visit Allan and found him in a stressed and anxious state. He began to tell me of his frequent nightmares related to his life and death experiences during World War ll. He was having dreams, intrusive thoughts and memories of these events daily. Allan stated that the dreams and memories were so vivid and life like they would leave him in a state of panic. He could not understand how he could live such a long and productive life after the war and not be bothered by his experiences until now. Allan would visit the VA and later be diagnosed with PTSD at age 91.

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, symptoms of PTSD can occur even 50 years after wartime experiences. PTSD symptoms may increase with age due to retirement, leaving the person more time on their hands to think about and review one’s life. Watching tv, where movies or news reports show scenes that take the person back in time, allows them to revisit their experiences. Medical illness and poor health decreases the individuals coping skills. These factors all play a role in the emergence of late life PTSD.

It is important to note that traumatic events are not limited to wartime. We provide care to many that may have experienced a variety of traumatic events such as rape, child abuse, shootings, domestic violence, the Holocaust, and natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.

When teaching PTSD, I share Allan’s story in the hope that those providing care may use this information to spot someone in distress that may have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime that was never disclosed. When providing care, such as bathing, the distress or combative behavior of an individual may be linked to a traumatic event, such as rape or assault. Having prior knowledge of such an event would lead to a different bathing approach by staff. Should long term care facilities decide to add questions related to possible traumatic life events during the admission process, perhaps having this knowledge can lead to better care planning and improved quality of life for the individuals they serve.

For more information on PTSD and associated disorders, I recommend you visit:

Debbie McCauley, MS

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