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TRAUMA, THE “HIDDEN” HURT IN THE ELDERLY

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds”, wrote Laurell K. Hamilton in Mistral’s Kiss.

Hidden but hurting

This is an apt description of trauma; a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that so traumatises a person that an even deeper, often hidden, wound is left in the person’s soul, spirit and inner self. What makes a traumatic experience even worse is the fact that it is usually totally unexpected, leaves a person unprepared to handle the crisis. There usually is nothing a person can do to prevent it from happening!

Such an experience is usually followed by typical reactions of shock and denial while the emotional aftermath is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Typical symptoms that may develop within a month of the trauma include repeatedly experiencing the trauma in images, thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks, avoiding reminders of the trauma, numbed emotions or anger and agitation. Other symptoms may include insomnia, irritability and an inability to concentrate.

It is, however, now recognised that it is not always the event alone that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event. A person’s reaction to a traumatic event − be it physical harm, natural disasters, economic, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse, bullying, abandonment, neglect or bereavement − hinges upon the individual’s personal history and coping skills and also the extent of support and reactions from friends, family and relevant professionals.

Peter A. Levine, author of Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body adds that “although humans rarely die from trauma, if we do not resolve it, our lives can be severely diminished by its effects.” Some people have even described this situation as a “living death”.

The walking wounded

Recent research has revealed that emotional trauma can also result from common incidents such as a car accident, the breakup of a relationship, a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition or having to move house, etc.

Many older people have in their lifetime or just recently been confronted with traumas such as these and worse! Many still suffer from war-time experiences not dealt with, horrendous crimes against self, close friends and relatives, the pain of marital break-ups, abandonment and abuse by grown-up children or spouses, bereavement, the loss of home and hearth, and worst of all children moving overseas. Losing loved ones (bereavement) is considered one of the most traumatic experiences in anyone’s life.

How can we help?

Advancing age is usually related to increasing disability and loss of independence. Age often brings with it the inevitable loss of social support, familiar faces and dear ones, increasing loneliness and isolation, and progressive functional impairments such as difficulty in getting about, weakened sight and hearing, and loss of memory.

Promoting an awareness of the traumas, hidden hurts and needs of the elderly is a first step in the right direction. Many of the elderly never received therapy for traumatic events in their lives and they now need sympathetic listeners to help them express their emotional pain and receive appropriate treatment.

A variety of factors including balanced and nutritious meals, age appropriate physical and mental activities, appropriate housing and living arrangements should be put in place to help the elderly live happy, safe and contented lives.

Older persons need company. Isolation and loneliness can lead to depression and other emotional and mental problems. Visiting the elderly, reading to them or helping them with simple, day-to-day tasks and involving them in community activities will be a great help and encouragement.

“To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future” (Bertrand Russell).

Let’s all try to help this happen for the elderly!

Sources

Emotional and psychological trauma: causes, symptoms, effects and treatment. Retrieved from: https://www.helpguide.org/mental/emotional_psychological_trauma.htm
Franks, J. 2015. Elderly anxiety disorders. Retrieved from: https://www.aplaceformom.com/senior-care-resources/articles/elderly-anxiety-disorders
Kennard, J. How is stress different to emotional trauma? Retrieved from: https://www.healthcentral.com/anxiety/c/4182/157941/stress-emotional/
Quotes about trauma and healing trauma. Retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/trauma and https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/508529-healing-trauma-restoring-the-wisdom-of-your-body-sounds-true-audio-lea
Trauma. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/
Types of trauma and violence. Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence/types