Vietnam Veterans Day on 18th August is an opportunity to focus on how we can support the mental health of the 60,000 Australians who were deployed to Vietnam
Vietnam Veterans Day was originally a commemoration of the 1966 battle of Long Tan, during which 108 Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought off an attack from over 2000 Viet Cong troops. In 1987, the Prime Minister announced that Long Tan Day would be known as Vietnam Veterans Day to remember the service of those who served in Vietnam.
Approximately 60,000 Australians deployed to Vietnam during 1962-1975. They are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s and for those caring for those veterans it is helpful to understand general ageing issues as well as veteran mental health issues.
Successful, healthy ageing is a lifelong process which can be enhanced at any age. By creating an environment and opportunities that enable people to do what they value, we can help veterans age successfully.
Ageing is a time of change: retirement, illness and the death of a partner or friends need to be navigated. It can also be a time of reflection: “Has my life been meaningful, and what contributions have I made?” It is a time when the interaction of mental and physical health becomes apparent. Changes related to physical and cognitive agility and chronic diseases need to be monitored and managed.
People who are vulnerable to mental health difficulties can experience an increase in symptoms during times of change, or as they age.
Vietnam veterans have a higher rate of PTSD and comorbid disorders than more contemporary veterans. In addition, the risk of dementia increases not only with age, but also by the presence of PTSD, depressive disorder, or alcohol-related disorders.
The severity of PTSD can change over time and can be exacerbated by stress. While symptoms often decrease with age, they can increase with triggers. Taking part in military-related activities such as commemorations, interviews, and social activities can be a positive, enjoyable and affirming experience for some veterans, but for others they can be a symbolic reminder of traumatic events and a distressing experience. Suicide risk, if present, does not decrease even when someone’s mobility or physical capacity declines.
Healthy ageing is a strengths-based approach that focusses on ensuring people can be mobile and meet their basic needs, as well as learn, grow, maintain relationships, and contribute to society.
A recent Australian study (Australian Research Study on Healthy Ageing) asked older veterans to describe what ageing well meant for them. They revealed that the areas of importance to them in older age included health, social wellbeing, and meaningful activity engagement. They also described the use of positive coping strategies to adapt to chronic physical and mental health conditions.
For example, physical activity was a common way to manage depression and PTSD, as described by one participant: “I do have PTSD, severe mental problems, … fitness is absolutely paramount for depression, and you could go for a walk or a run and if you’re in a depressed state you feel that at least I’ve achieved something for the day … I don’t drink, or very rarely. I keep very fit. And I find that I manage life that way”.
Another participant described his view of ageing well as having a positive attitude: “I never think now that I can’t do things … I’m about 42 miles an hour slower than when I was 50 or 40, but I still do it, I never think that I can’t”.
A large US study found veterans’ perceptions of healthy ageing are affected by their functioning (physical, emotional, social, cognitive) and their life satisfaction (involvement in enjoyable activities and a sense of control over the course of life).
And the good news is that while many older adults have one or more health conditions, if well controlled they have minimal influence on wellbeing.
Those who care for ageing veterans should focus on ensuring that meaningful, helpful and enjoyable social contacts are maintained or developed.
Simple, practical strategies can be effective in helping a veteran to reduce stress, restore a sense of control, and maintain health.
- Encourage the veteran to limit their exposure to media coverage of military events.
- Encourage them to look after themselves by getting plenty of rest, eating well, getting some exercise, making time for relaxation, and cutting back on coffee, cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol.
- Encourage them to do something enjoyable every day.
- Encourage them to seek professional support if they are finding it hard to cope.
Recent studies suggest that the healthy aged, especially those who do not have cardiovascular disease, dementia or brain injuries, are less likely to show cognitive decline. And older veterans can continue to benefit from appropriate psychological therapy and from meaningful physical, intellectual, and social activities.
The Australian Research Study on Healthy Ageing is ongoing until 31st December 2019 and is currently recruiting ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force aged between 60 and 75. For details about how you or someone you know can be involved, contact Loretta Watson, firstname.lastname@example.org, 03 9035 5599.