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Recognizing Delayed PTSD in Holocaust Survivors


By Karen D. Brown
The Boston Globe
June 11, 2012

The first time Sonia Reich was hunted by the Nazis, she was an 11-year-old orphan, seeking refuge in the Polish countryside.

The second time was almost 60 years later, on a quiet street in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill. That time, however, the pursuit was happening solely in her head.

“I received a call at midnight saying that my mother had run out of her house and been picked up by the Skokie police,” said her son, Howard, a Chicago arts critic. Sonia had been screaming that someone was trying to kill her. “I couldn’t even comprehend that,” he recalled. “I thought it was a dream.”

Like many Holocaust survivors, Sonia Reich was not offered therapy after the war, and she never talked about her experiences. She spent five decades as an active suburban mother and wife. But as Sonia entered her 60s, after her husband died, her children began to notice some odd survivalist behavior, such as sleeping with an ax under her pillow and bringing her own water to restaurants. “But we did not connect those behaviors with what she went through as a child in the Holocaust,” Howard Reich said.

No one did. After the midnight incident, Sonia Reich was moved into a nursing home, where her delusions continued. She accused the staff of throwing bugs at her, calling her a prostitute, and stealing her food.

Eventually, Howard Reich consulted a specialist in geriatric mental health, and got a diagnosis for his mother: late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the label came as a surprise to her family, who thought she had risen above her past, researchers are increasingly focusing on the boomerang effect of psychological trauma. They are finding that the passage of time does not always diminish traumatic symptoms, and in fact, the physical, mental, and social changes that come with age can aggravate them.

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Keywords: PTSD, Holocaust Survivors, elderly

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