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Elder Abuse Trauma and Its Effect on Mental Health

By November 16, 2019 June 23rd, 2020 Blog

Elder abuse is not a new concept; it has been occurring since the beginning of humanity. Until the 20th century, elder abuse was hidden from the public eye and excused from public scrutiny. Like other forms of family violence and abuse, elder abuse has become a public health and criminal justice concern.

Elder abuse is defined as any knowing, intentional, or neglectful act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult over the age of 60. Although the exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that approximately 1 to 2.5 million elders suffer through abuse each year. Additionally, while there is no single pattern of psychological abuse, it is reported that 90% of the perpetrators committing psychological abuse of elderly people are their own family members. Unfortunately, there is no way to know the true numbers of elder abuse, as many cases are swept under the rug, or completely ignored altogether.

If someone is suffering from elder abuse, they will exhibit at least one of the following behaviors:

  • Evasiveness or reluctance to talk openly
  • Avoidance of eye contact or verbal contact with a caregiver
  • Passivity, withdrawal, or increasing depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness, fear helplessness, anxiety, or feelings of powerlessness
  • Cowering in the presence of the abuser
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Isolation from friends or other family
  • Contradictory statements
  • Confusion that is not related to any medical condition

Types of Abuse

When most people think of abuse, their mind immediately goes to physical or violent abuse. However, abuse comes in other, equally traumatic forms. The different types of abuse include:

  • Emotional or psychological abuse: Includes any behavior designed to hurt another person emotionally by yelling, making threats, humiliating, and/or shaming.
  • Financial abuse: Restricting or controlling access to money from another person.
  • Physical abuse: Characterized by any physical act or threat of physical violence with the intention of harming another person such as slapping, punching, or kicking.
  • Sexual abuse: Any unwanted sexual act forced on the victim including but not limited to unwanted touching, forced intercourse, or forced sexual contact with another person.
  • Spiritual abuse: Attacking another’s belief system, denying access to a place of worship, or forced participation in a cult.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event or experience. Trauma does not discriminate; trauma can happen to anyone at any time at any place. In the United States alone, approximately 61% of men and 51% of women report exposure to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

People’s specific reactions to trauma vary greatly, however, there are some common symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness, denial, fear, shame, and anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia or altered sleep patterns
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships or forming new ones
  • Emotional outburst
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal problems

Many of these feelings are completely normal and are a natural part of the recovery process after experiencing trauma. Over time, these reactions can begin to get in the way of an individual’s daily life and potentially lead to anxiety, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.

What Is Anxiety?

According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes. Other signs and symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Psychological symptoms such as constant fear of impending danger, panic, or disaster, and feeling nervous and/or irritable
  • Physical symptoms such as exhaustion, weakness, trembling, shaking, rapid breathing (hyperventilation), sweating, trembling, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and gastrointestinal problems

Anxiety itself happens to just about everyone at some point in life and usually does not need treatment. However, persistent anxiety tends to be a characteristic of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are a specific set of psychiatric disorders that have the same symptoms of anxiety. The main difference is that anxiety disorders are long-lasting and recurring.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)  is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, terrorist act, war/combat, rape, or other violent personal assault. PTSD can happen to anyone and currently affects approximately 3.5% of adults in the United States alone. Additionally, it is estimated that about 7-8% of the population in the United States will have PTSD at some point in their lives with women being twice as likely as men.

There are several types of symptoms someone with PTSD may experience, including:

  • Changes in personality. PTSD can change one’s personality. One may become irritable with angry outbursts or begin acting reckless and self-destructive. Other changes consist of difficulty concentrating, being easily startled, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Intrusive thoughts. Repeated, involuntary memories, distressing dreams, or flashbacks are all examples of intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can be so vivid that one may feel as though they are re-living their traumatic experience.
  • Avoidance. People with PTSD may avoid anything that reminds them of their trauma resulting in the avoidance of people, places, objects, situations, and activities. They may even resist talking about it altogether.
  • Harmful thoughts and feelings. People suffering from PTSD may experience ongoing and distorted beliefs about others and/or themselves. These feelings include fear, guilt, horror, shame, and anger. These feelings and thoughts can potentially cause them to lose interest in once enjoyable activities. Feelings of detachment are also common. 

For someone to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must last for more than one month. Many individuals develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, but symptoms can appear even later in life. Not everyone who witnesses or experiences a trauma will get PTSD, and no one knows why PTSD happens to some but not to others. For that reason, PTSD is not a sign of weakness.

Importance of Early Intervention and Treatment

As our loved one’s age and lose the strength they once had, it is important to check on them frequently. Elderly abuse is frequently ignored and blamed on the symptoms of general old age. If we do not pay close attention, we may unintentionally be compliant in their suffering. Fortunately, there are treatments available, such as Accelerated Resolution Therapy®(ART),  to help those suffering from elder abuse return to their daily lives.

Intervene as soon as possible on behalf of someone suffering from trauma due to elderly abuse.  Uncharacteristic behavior can become increasingly destructive. Over time, buried and suppressed memories become more and more powerful. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) is an innovative, evidence-based therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health issues. Initially, the therapy was primarily used to help veterans suffering from PTSD. One of the major advantages is the speed at which ART is able to bring relief. Generally, only one to five sessions are needed, not months or years of expensive psychiatric treatment. 

ART works by reprogramming the traumatic memories that are preventing a person from enjoying the full life they deserve. The techniques work equally well on anyone suffering from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced. Trauma, at the end of the day, is still trauma.

Regardless of how bad things may be, there is hope, and there is always someone available to help a person through difficult times. Contact ART International to learn more about ART or to find a therapist near you.