On June 21, APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) and APA co-hosted a congressional briefing focused on aging and trauma. Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), the ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and a longtime champion of mental health and aging issues, sponsored the event, attended by senior staff from key Senate offices and leaders of aging and other health organizations. An expert panel included three psychologists and an older adult veteran and trauma survivor.

They explained that over half of all Americans experience a traumatic event in their lifetime and that, while most will recover, many will encounter lasting mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other high lights from the briefing included:

  • The normative aging process. Martha R. Crowther, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of health behavior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discussed the normative aging process and helped to dispel many myths commonly associated with mental health and aging. She noted, for example, that depression is not a "normal" part of aging. She also provided policy recommendations for increased training in the psychology of aging; expanded basic and applied research at the National Institutes of Health and especially the National Institute on Aging; legislation to increase availability of and access to effective mental health services for older adults; increased coordination of mental and physical health care; and opportunities to reduce stigma.

  • The long-term impact of child abuse. Mary W. Armsworth, PhD, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Houston, drew from her more than 20 years of research, teaching and clinical experience with adverse and traumatic experiences to highlight the long-term consequences of child abuse on female survivors as they age. For example, many aging survivors continue to struggle with depression, anxiety, interpersonal relationship difficulties and high medical-care utilization. She called on policy-makers to support prevention and early intervention programs; conduct research related to women and trauma; increase access to services for female survivors and their families; and provide systematic trauma training for health-care providers, law-enforcement officers, caregivers and indigenous leaders, among others.

  • The needs of aging veterans. Joan M. Cook, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, discussed the lifelong impact of war trauma on aging veterans, including distress, adaptation and resilience. She recommended that legislators do the following regarding veterans-related policies: support research related to physical, mental and behavioral health in veterans; translate research findings into prevention and intervention services that assist veterans and their families; and provide services for veterans affected by traumatic events.

  • A survivor's story. Albert M. Perna, a World War II veteran and prisoner of war who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, discussed the tremendous impact of war trauma on him and his family. He explained his continued battle with chronic PTSD and the benefits of treatment he has received through the VA health-care system. His talk culminated in a standing ovation.

Following the briefing, presenters met with their congressional representatives and staff and key congressional committee members to address needs of older adults in their home states. Public Policy Office (PPO) staff followed up with policy-makers by sharing research related to prevention, early intervention and treatment of trauma.

PPO continues to work on related legislation, including the Positive Aging Act of 2004, the Elder Justice Act and the Expanding Research for Women in Trauma Act of 2003. For more information on these issues, visit the PPO Web site at www.apa.org/ppo.

Diane L. Elmore, PhD, the SPSSI James Marshall Public Policy Scholar in the APA Public Policy Office, convened and moderated this congressional briefing.