New AAG Position Paper explores promoting older people's resilience and post-traumatic growth following disasters, trauma and adversity

‘Promoting Older People's Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth following Disasters, Trauma and Adversity’ is a Position Paper developed by AAG to delve deeper into the topics of disasters, resilience, post-traumatic stress disorder, cumulative trauma, post-traumatic growth and gerotranscendence.

This resource was written by Tom Voigt, AAG Senior Policy and Research Officer, with comments, input and feedback from AAG members.

The intent of this paper was to strengthen knowledge around individual responses of older people to disasters and resilience. This paper complements the work of AAG’s 2021 Glenda Powell Travelling Fellow, Dr Paul Arbon, and his work around disaster resilience through community capacity and organisational capacity building.

Through the creation of the paper, AAG wanted to provide insight into this question: How do older individuals cope with disasters and traumatic events such as heatwaves, droughts, bushfires, floods, cyclones, pandemics and acts of terrorism?

As a result of this aim, the paper thoroughly explores individual responses to disasters, trauma and adversity including post-traumatic stress disorder/syndrome, cumulative trauma, resilience, post traumatic growth, and gerotranscendence.

Amid the climate of the pandemic, these past few years have highlighted the need to show how individuals cope and respond to traumatic disasters.

“As an organisation focused on improving the experience of ageing, we felt it was important to recognise the experiences and growth of older adults in the adverse circumstances presented by disasters of the past and present. By doing so, we can learn and respond more compassionately and appropriately to support recovery from disasters” said AAG CEO James Beckford Saunders.

AAG notes within the paper that being resilient to disasters, trauma and adversity is certainly desirable, however recovering from disasters and potentially growing from these experiences is equally important. Interestingly, the research explored in this paper suggests that people who are particularly resilient may experience less post traumatic growth.

AAG President A/Professor Marguerite Bramble spoke on the importance of creating a resource that recognised the multi-faceted nature of disasters, trauma and adversity, reiterating that “we at AAG wanted to recognise the turbulent times that people are living in now and have experienced in the past. We wanted this resource to investigate the complex and multi-dimensional nature of the 2021 AAG Hot Topic and provide evidence-based support to promote resilience and post-traumatic growth in later life”.

Through this resource readers can gain awareness of how protective factors to trauma and disasters can come from within the individual as they progress through their life course trajectory, so called gerotranscendence. The resource challenges the reader to think about how organisations can recognise and harness older people’s strengths and experience.

The individual wisdom brought about by the natural process of ageing and explored in the concept gerotranscendence can be bolstered by additional protective factors such as social support, autonomy, access to resources and physical activity.

AAG recognises that being resilient to trauma, dealing with and recovering from trauma, post-traumatic growth and gerotranscendence are all different processes. We encourage those involved in supporting older people in dealing with disasters, trauma and adversity to understand these different processes and recognise that different approaches and strategies will be required when working with older people. It is important to recognise that older people are not a homogenous group and that they have been exposed to a wide range of experiences through their respective life-course.

AAG supports those efforts which look to enhance or strengthen resilience in older people, but also support an approach to working with older people which recognises the individual’s narrative and experiences. It is vitally important that we take the time to understand the individual’s journey and acknowledge the complexity that is human experience.