What Can Trigger PTSD in the Elderly and How Can It Be Managed?

Though not an age-exclusive condition, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the elderly presents unique challenges. As a caregiver, learning the signs of PTSD, what can trigger it, and what to do when PTSD is triggered is crucial to providing quality care. 

In this blog post, you’ll learn how to manage PTSD as a caregiver so you can equip your senior loved one with the tools and coping mechanism they need. The good news is, you’re not alone in this — Advanced Nursing + Home Support’s specialized in-home care is here to support you and the senior you care for.

What Are Signs of PTSD?

PTSD affects everyone differently and can manifest in a number of ways, plus growing older brings an array of health changes. That’s why PTSD symptoms in the elderly are often mistaken for other health issues at first. However, there are a number of common signs that may indicate a senior is struggling with PTSD.

1. Flashbacks and Nightmares

One of the most common signs of PTSD in the elderly is reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks can trigger PTSD symptoms further by making it feel like the trauma is happening in a very real way and can be extremely upsetting and induce intense distress. Nightmares and flashbacks associated with PTSD often come with physical sensations such as pain, sweating, trembling, or nausea. 

2. Feeling on Edge

The symptoms of PTSD — particularly the sensation of reliving the trauma — can be traumatizing in itself. For this reason, seniors with PTSD often appear as though they are tense, anxious, or generally living on edge. Some signs of this include:

  • Frequent panicking and anxiety
  • Being easily upset
  • Extreme alertness, or hypervigilance
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Being easily startled

The signs of someone struggling with PTSD often overlap with symptoms of anxiety, so it is important to consult a professional for a proper diagnosis. 

3. Avoiding Feelings or Memories

Since the negative side effects of PTSD can be set off by a trigger, seniors with PTSD often try to avoid feelings or memories that may trigger a flashback or other symptom. If a senior refuses to talk about the past or becomes irritable when asked to talk about or think about certain feelings, they could be suffering from PTSD.

How Does PTSD Affect the Elderly?

According to the National Institutes of Health, 50% to 90% of older adults in the U.S. have been exposed to at least one type of potentially traumatic event. Not every exposure to a traumatic event will cause the condition, but PTSD in the elderly is often underreported. 

PTSD in the elderly doesn’t just affect their mental wellness. People who have experienced trauma or have PTSD have higher rates of many physical health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, coronary artery disease, osteoarthritis, and diabetes.

An added complication unique to the elderly population is how PTSD interacts with memory issues. Seniors who experience memory issues may go long stretches where they forget about past trauma, only to have it resurface again. Seniors suffering from PTSD and memory issues may benefit greatly from in-home memory care.

How Is PTSD Treated in the Elderly?

Treatment options should always be developed in consultation with medical professionals. PTSD is often treated with therapy and there are therapists who specialize in it.  A good care plan that includes evaluation and regular appointments with a qualified therapist (and maybe medication) might be a better direction to take this.

Step 1: Assessment

The first step in treating PTSD in the elderly is assessment. A mental health professional can thoroughly examine an elderly person to uncover the root cause of their PTSD, what can trigger PTSD symptoms in them, and the best treatment options. A thorough examination often includes a physical exam, a mental health exam, and even an in-home assessment to help inform treatment plans.

Step 2: Therapy

Several types of therapy are highly effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD and teaching seniors how to manage the disorder. Cognitive therapy is a type of talk therapy that can help seniors recognize their thinking patterns and change them to better cope with their symptoms. 

Exposure therapy exposes seniors to past trauma to help them safely face situations they find triggering. General stress management therapy can also be an effective way to manage symptoms and learn what to do when PTSD is triggered.

Additionally, a leading treatment for PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR). This nontraditional type of psychotherapy requires a special certification to administer. Designed to relieve psychological stress, EDMR therapy uses an eight-phased treatment plan to help patients recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.

Step 3: Medication

While not appropriate for all seniors, certain medications have been proven to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Anti-depressants can help with feelings of depression and anxiety and also improve sleep problems and issues with concentration.

Similarly, antianxiety medications can help seniors manage feelings of panic associated with the disorder. When it comes to medication regimes, seniors can be forgetful or resistant to taking them. That’s where a loved one can step in and help ensure the senior is taking their medication as directed.

How Do You Calm a Trigger After PTSD?

One of the most difficult things for seniors to understand when learning how to manage PTSD is what to do when symptoms are triggered. Several coping techniques can calm a trigger and help get the senior to a better, calmer mental state.

Breathe Deeply

Breathing slowly and deeply following a triggering event helps send signals to the body to calm down. Some seniors may even find it helpful to follow a breathing pattern that they can engage in until the symptoms subside.

Practice Grounding Techniques

Worked in with breathing exercises, this is an effective technique to lower anxiety. 

  • 5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. 
  • 4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. 
  • 3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. 
  • 2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. 
  • 1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste.


While it is difficult to do, particularly for seniors, validating feelings of PTSD is an important part of coping with symptoms and healing. Acknowledging that the trauma is real and that the feelings are justified can help calm the trigger.

Think Positively

Thinking positively after a trigger is an effective way to redirect the brain and focus on something better. Help your senior loved one think of their family, favorite hobby, or anything else that brings feelings of happiness. Oftentimes, concentrating on a positive subject will be enough to break through the trigger.

Senior Care with Advanced Nursing + Home Support

At Advanced Nursing + Home Support, our dedicated team of skilled nursing providers is committed to improving the lives of seniors, including those suffering from PTSD. Our staff is trained on what can trigger PTSD as well as how to manage it. Our goal is to make your loved one feel as comfortable as possible by delivering care directly in the comfort of their own home.

If you have a loved one in need of skilled nursing services in Maryland or the D.C. area, contact us today to learn more about our team and our approach to care.