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Aging Survivors Can’t Forget

The command is to never forget the Holocaust—but some survivors wish they could, as late-onset PTSD brings back vivid memories they can’t escape

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Holocaust survivors in New York City socialize at a luncheon hosted by Selfhelp in 2008.(Selfhelp Community Services)
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There are thousands of destitute Holocaust survivors living in the New York area

Many of the estimated 200,000 living Holocaust survivors face a new trauma in their final years, as they are overwhelmed by terrible memories they’ve successfully contained for 70 years. In some cases, the return of these memories is the outcome of a natural instinct, as we age, to look back over our lives. For others, it’s the result of what has been termed late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder, which brings on flashbacks, bouts of paranoia, and other debilitating symptoms. Reporter Karen Brown introduces us to survivors and their family members (including Howard Reich, whose documentary film Prisoner of her Past chronicled his mother’s mental decline), as well as social workers and specialists working with them, to find out more about this painful last chapter in a survivor’s life, and about what can be done to help them. [Running time: 17:00.] 

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This is so important. I was the primary caretaker for a survivor with the same symptoms – he thought nursing home staff were Nazis, among other breaks with reality. It was so frustrating that the professionals who allegedly catered to Jewish clients/patients couldn’t see that he was obviously battling PTSD. 

    Many years ago, before Holocaust studies became popular, I, too was a social worker in a facility with many survivors. I ended up doing my Master’s Thesis on “Transference of Trauma”, as I saw many PTSD symptoms in the children. This was before the “second generation” and PTSD…my professors at first did not accept my subject, as they thought there was not such malady. But I knew what I saw, and now even third generations as well as children of those who where responsible are suffering from “transference of trauma” and transference of guilt.

Bianca_Felix says:

This is NOT “late-onset PTSD”.  Such a thing doesn’t exist!

“Paranoia” is NOT a feature of PTSD.

“Flashbacks” are NOT the only feature of PTSD.This is part of the dementing process – I saw it with my own grandmother and I have seen it with many patients.Nor is it unique to Holocaust survivors – many WW2 survivors have similar experiences as they dement, and experience the present as the past.  But certainly, the meaning attached to those experiences is additionally frightening for Holocaust survivors.  (Although, one wonders how the Nanking survivors are doing just about now.)As for PTSD, many of these people have been enduring the effects of their trauma for decades – the PTSD is pervasive and was particularly prominent in the first 10 or so years after the war ended.

I hate sloppy use of language and diagnosis and – in this case – it prevents using the most effective interventions.  (ie the management of PTSD is vastly different to the management of dementia)

Right, this isn’t PTSD, this is PTSD plus dementia, which is to be expected as a population ages. This is one of the few cases I’m in favor of sensitivity training–you can see how getting these folks to take a shower must be difficult…

What a beautifully told story.  I’m sure awareness and acknowledgement of these common experiences – regardless of the technical diagnosis – will help survivors’ families and caregivers avoid unintentionally re-traumatizing them.   As just listeners, we’re not in much of a position to second guess the diagnosis of the treating professionals, and the important thing is the humane and respectful treatment of these individuals who obviously require understanding, patience and skilled care.  Thanks, Karen, for reporting the issue with equal respect, understanding, patience and skill.

drjgelb says:

Correct! I witnessed this decades long process in both sets of my grandparents, discovering what I was seeing during my medical & psychiatric training. Looking back, my dear grandparents all manifested chronic, untreated PTSD that blended with their individual personalities & the specific trauma & losses they suffered. In their late elderly years, the terror they must have felt became all too real during episodes of acute illness or post-operative delirium, when nurses became concentration camp guards & doctors all seemed to be involved in “selection” for death Vs life. Only one of my grandparents demented & did so rapidly but once in psychiatric practice, I have witnessed similar clinical courses numerous times. In these cases, having a Jewish doctor was important to the patients & my personal experience with my grandparents, afforded me the special sensitivity to understand the salience of symptoms observed, in their proper context & be able to comfort, reorient & reassure these patients & their families appropriately.


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Aging Survivors Can’t Forget

The command is to never forget the Holocaust—but some survivors wish they could, as late-onset PTSD brings back vivid memories they can’t escape

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