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Coping Strategies for Elderly Adults in the Wake of Trauma

No matter our age, we’re all faced with major challenges throughout our lives. While coping with trauma can be difficult for anyone, it can be specifically challenging for seniors. As a senior, you may have more grief due to the loss of loved ones; you may be transitioning out of your home; you may be lonely; and you could even be dealing with post-traumatic stress from earlier experiences in your life. Complicating matters further, the aging process makes physical responses to stress more difficult when we’re older. Here, we’ll examine how trauma and stress impact seniors as well as some coping strategies for elderly adults.

Seniors and Trauma

The number of seniors who have been exposed to trauma is higher than many people realize. In fact, a literature review conducted by researchers at the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs found that “approximately 70% to 90% of adults aged 65 and up have been exposed to at least one potentially traumatic event during their lifetime.” Although more men have been exposed to military-related trauma, high numbers of women have experienced some type of interpersonal trauma during their lives—up to 72% according to one study. In addition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops into a chronic challenge for some older adults and impacts their ability to deal with new stressors as they age.

In addition, the aging process is usually accompanied by even more trauma—largely as a result of change in one form or another. That might include things like the loss of a loved one, a decline in physical or emotional health, loss of independence, or moving out of the home you’ve cherished for many years. In fact, stress related to moving has become so prevalent that it’s often referred to as “transitional trauma,” or “relocation stress syndrome (RSS)” when it involves symptoms like anxiety, confusion, and hopelessness. Quoted in an article for The Huffington Post, psychologist and senior expert Christina Steinworth notes, “While each person or couple reacts differently, moving out of the home where children have been raised, where memories have been captured, is a physical, tangible announcement that ‘an era has come to an end.”

Seniors and Stress

Although aging is a unique process for everyone, the overall result is that seniors usually can’t deal with trauma and stress as well as they did when they were younger. As aging expert Chris Woolsten notes, “At any age, stressed-out brains sound an alarm that releases potentially harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. Ideally, the brain turns down the alarm when stress hormones get too high.” But in seniors, Woolsten says the brain often doesn’t regulate those hormone levels as well, leading to an overload that can cause additional health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, and weakened immune function.

Strategies to Help

The good news is that there are many effective ways to better deal with trauma and stress, such as utilizing strategies from this toolkit created by the online master of social work program at the University of Southern California on mindfulness for healthy living—a resource developed by the MSW@USC. It’s never too late to begin practicing mindfulness, and within this toolkit are short, self-guided meditations that are perfect for beginners. These tips could also be used in a group setting, so you could share them with your friends.

Practicing mindfulness with others is a positive way to encourage social engagement and overcome trauma individually and as a group. As leading health and wellness innovator David Romanelli notes in the mindfulness toolkit, “Recent medical research suggests that meditation may have proven neurological benefits, and can support mental health recovery from anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is also a key component in building resiliency when facing life’s stressors.”

Additional coping strategies for elderly adults include:

  • Maintaining a positive outlook: Which may have a positive impact on longevity.
  • Staying close to family and friends: Social support can help prevent stress and diseases that are related to it.
  • Exercising regularly: Which provides benefits for physical and mental health as well as helps to block the effects of aging on cortisol levels.
  • Finding what uniquely works for you: The best strategy is the one that you will use.

Author Bio: Colleen O’Day is a Marketing Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and speech pathology programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.

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