PTSD and the Caregiving Connection

distress_old_man This post is part of the #Blog4Care blog carnival being hosted by Caring Across Generations. This blog carnival takes place over a 3-day period beginning this March 24th and takes advantage of the power of social medial to draw attention to the growing care crisis.

Every 8 seconds, someone is turning 65 in the US. Alzheimer’s disease is on pace to overtake cancer and heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans in the coming decades. More than 42 million of us are caring for a family member who needs regular care. Yet the options that we have to ensure we all get quality, affordable care aren’t enough. The care crisis is real, and it’s affecting more of us every day.


For many years I struggled to understand my father-in-law, Norman. He was a kind and compassionate man but reserved, socially awkward, and emotionally distant. He worked as a machinist for many years, but when he entered his forties, he made the move to faith-based children’s work.

Norman came alive when he was with children. His typically stoic face became animated, and his veneer of awkward reserve fell away. It wasn’t until Dan and I learned about post-traumatic stress disorder that we began to understand his father.

When Norman was eleven, his father walked one last time to the family barn and hung himself.Normanwas the last child to see his dad. He was also the child who found his father hanging from the rafters and who helped cut him down.

The trauma of that day changed Norman forever. His heart froze, and part of him forever remained eleven. Other parts of Norman developed coping mechanisms to deal with the pain.


Dan and I understood very little about post-traumatic stress disorder back in the eighties. We didn’t understand that many of Norman’s behaviors were linked to decades of escalating symptoms that stemmed from childhood. Obsessive-compulsive disorder ruled his life. Every day Norman ate the same breakfast from the same plate on the same placemat with the same matching silverware (which required a search, since most of my silverware didn’t match). His daily routine followed the same order. We followed the same steps when Norman dressed and attended to personal hygiene. I often joked that if the house ever burned, Norman would have to brush his teeth and hair the same number of strokes that he brushed them every morning before he’d be able to exit the house. This would be funny except for the fact that it was the truth.

My daughter learned how to cope with the challenges. My son struggled–and I can’t blame him. Norman’s behaviors were mystifying and at times threatening. On one occasion he was removed from our home because the dear, precious man we all adored was deemed a risk to our safety.

His mental illness stretched the limits of our comprehension. And it broke our hearts.


Norman lived with our family for two years before we learned about post-traumatic stress disorder. Our daughter had served with an international relief organization during the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, and she returned frighteningly changed. I began to learn about PTSD and its symptoms: anxiety, depression, mood swings, self-destructive behavior, flashbacks, nightmares, “zoning out,” and fears.

Suddenly,Norman’s puzzling behaviors came into focus. My husband and I understood that “part” of Norman was stuck at age eleven, and for his entire life he’d never found the words to express the pain of his trauma. Depression, anxiety, and fear had marked his life, and we hadn’t known how to help him because we didn’t understand that effective post-traumatic stress disorder requires treatment of the trauma itself, and not the symptoms.

Over the following years,Normanreceived psychiatric care. If Dan and I had had a better understanding of PTSD, we would have sought trauma treatment for his father. But the good news is that we gained a new understanding of how to interact withNorman. We learned to see his behaviors as a normal part of his response to trauma, and we gained compassion and empathy.

I suddenly saw the stuck parts of Norman, wounded and frozen in time. At the core of his being, he was still a child unable to move past his father’s traumatizing death.


If you suspect your loved one experienced trauma in their childhood or even later in life:

  • Talk to a counselor who understands trauma and can help you understand how to more effectively interact with your loved one.
  • Become familiar with the causes and symptoms of trauma.
  • Commit to gaining empathy for your loved one and to learn to see them through new eyes. It’s very likely that “\part” of them is still stuck in their trauma and has never known how to move beyond that hurt.
  • Gently try to move them toward greater understanding of their trauma wounds and coping strategies through counseling and support. But recognize that this may be difficult, and your most important role may be your steadfast expressions of love, compassion, and understanding.

For more information on PTSD, visit

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