There's still time to work through trauma in your elder years

Feb 1, 2015

A growing body of medical evidence indicates that childhood trauma may be a major risk factor for poor health and quality of life in later years. But as life continues, instead of burying the past, many elders search for a way to get rid of the burdens associated with hurtful memories. This week, we interview an expert who says it’s not too late to resolve issues and achieve peace in your senior years.

Lisa Kendall joins us on “Take Care” to discuss options for resolving trauma before the end of life. Kendall is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in the areas of aging, elder care, trauma and adult survivors of childhood abuse. She speaks on these topics at a national level.

Why now?

“Elderhood is a distinct stage of life that does include physical decline but also includes opportunities for growth,” Kendall says.

After seniors are done raising children, working and busying themselves with day to day life, they often have more time to think. And sometimes that means more time to be aware of burdensome memories or past experiences that affected them in a negative way. Because there is time to look back over life, there is often a need to resolve any issues.

The process can often go two ways: either seniors can have a feeling of integrity, that it did all make sense, they made mistakes but learned along the way; or despair, a feeling of incompleteness and lack of feeling. Kendall says therapy is aimed at working through that despair.

The process

Kendall begins by getting to know the patient and creating a safe environment. The cause of despair is often unknown, or buried, and the process can take some time.

“My first path is really to create a safe space for the person who might be coming to me for some counseling,” says Kendall.

Education is also a key portion of the process; it helps to know how your brain processes these bad experiences before you can work through them. Kendall gives patients the tools to resolve anxiety and deal with depression.

It also helps to get a sense of family history, to pick out patterns of behavior and clues.

When the patient is comfortable and ready to begin, Kendall often uses EMDR as a therapy. It’s a technique that’s been around for 30 years and is often used for those with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Working through the pain

It’s not always necessary to bring up past experiences, and work through the trauma in a way that resembles reliving those bad memories.

“It’s possible to just work on helping people lower their anxiety or help them feel better, maybe do more and be more active,” Kendall says. “And for some people that is enough.”

Kendall says the key, regardless of therapy technique, is to understand the different kinds of trauma and keep in mind that everyone is different. Most often, she says, patients are aware of the traumatic event(s), but dismiss them.

“You see people, right in front of your eyes processing, difficult memories and reframing them, and getting out of the mindset that they’ve carried since children,” Kendall says.

A lot of people can live with their traumatic event and function fairly well, but providing therapy can help patients understand the impact these events have had, especially if they’re thinking about their memories in a different way – a productive, therapeutic way.

“I think painful memories are much more common than we realize.”

Part of the process is often dealing with regret that bad memories weren’t addressed sooner. But relieving guilt is easier with a future orientation, working toward coping ahead of time and avoiding further painful situations.

A single painful event can often be worked through in about one or two sessions of EMDR. Chronic trauma, like neglect or sexual abuse over years, could take months or even years.

When dealing with elders, Kendall finds what will work for the patient, but still honors the stage of development they’re in.