For Some Vets, Growing Old Triggers PTSD
As veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam age and enter hospice, we’re learning that some of them, who seemed totally fine all their lives, are experiencing late in life post-traumatic stress disorder.
One study shows that as many as one in three vets have experienced Late Onset Stress Symptology (LOSS).
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Kate Wells of Michigan Radio profiles the daughter of a vet with LOSS. Her father was helped by a VA nurse who specializes in helping vets and their families with end of life care, and the symptoms of late onset PTSD.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.
There is a lot we don't understand about war veterans and PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder; why some experience it but so many others don't, why one vet can have symptoms right away while another can be fine for years. Well, now, older generations of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are showing us that PTSD can actually be triggered late in life, especially when vets are dying. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Kate Wells of Michigan Radio has our story.
KATE WELLS, BYLINE: When Brenda Jackson was really little, she would get up in the night and find her dad wide awake, holding his head in his hands.
BRENDA JACKSON: My dad was Lenwood Long, and he served in the Pacific arena. He saw a lot of combat. We knew that he suffered, but we did not recognize it as PTSD.
WELLS: Jackson says her dad never talked about the war. He was more reserved when he got back, and they knew he had trouble sleeping. But the family thought he was basically fine, right up until his old age. That was when a stroke landed him in the VA, and then he started having nightmares while he was wide awake.
JACKSON: And my dad was shaking and crying, and he was seeing it out his window. And I said, daddy, is this real, or is this just a dream? He said, no, it's real. It really happened. And what it was, was they arrived over there, and they immediately went into combat. Well, the man next to my dad was shot in the head right beside him, and that was his nightmare.
WELLS: In the weeks before Jackson's dad died, he changed. Before, he had never had a temper. Now, he was snapping at the family, at the hospice staff. So they brought in Deborah Grassman. She's a nurse practitioner, and she's been working with VA hospice patients for decades.
DEBORAH GRASSMAN: Everything shifts at the end of life.
WELLS: Grassman says she sees this kind of change all the time in older vets. Their whole lives, they have been fighting to keep a lid on their trauma. But old age changes that.
GRASSMAN: Our conscious mind gets weaker. Our unconscious mind gets stronger. That has huge significance because it means that the conscious mind doesn't have the strength to keep those memories boxed up anymore. And so they start seeping in.
WELLS: This kind of late-in-life PTSD is so common in vets there's now even a name for it: late onset stress symptomatology, or LOSS. It's triggered by the stuff that naturally comes along with old age: retiring, losing loved ones, confronting your own death, looking back on your life. But it isn't hopeless. Grassman says sometimes what these vets really need is permission to just let go.
GRASSMAN: A lot of times what I will say to people is just a simple question. I'll say: I'm just wondering, is there anything that might still be troubling you from that war? And then just sit quietly. And then the story comes.
WELLS: Grassman says the goal in working with hospice patients like this is to help them have a more peaceful death. Brenda Jackson believes her father did die peacefully.
JACKSON: I began to acknowledge to him that we understood and that we would give him the time, and we wanted to be there with him. We would not leave him. And then one Sunday, they have memorial services for the veterans that have died over the last three months. And we had that on the TV in the hospice room. And when they played taps, my dad took his last breath.
WELLS: Right now, veterans groups and hospice workers are learning more about how to help vets as they reach the end of their lives, especially if those vets are experiencing PTSD. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Kate Wells in Michigan.
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