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Coping in old age with extreme childhood trauma: aging Holocaust survivors and their offspring facing new challenges

Ayala Fridman, Marian J Bakermans-Kranenburg, Abraham Sagi-Schwartz, Marinus H Van IJzendoorn
Aging & Mental Health 2011, 15 (2): 232-42
20924822

OBJECTIVE: The Holocaust has become an iconic example of immense human-made catastrophes, and survivors are now coping with normal aging processes. Childhood trauma may leave the survivors more vulnerable when they are facing stress related to old age, whereas their offspring might have a challenging role of protecting their own parents from further pain. Here we examine the psychological adaptation of Holocaust survivors and their offspring in light of these new challenges, examining satisfaction with life, mental health, cognitive abilities, dissociative symptoms, and physical health.

METHODS: Careful matching of female Holocaust survivors and comparison subjects living in Israel was employed to form a case-control study design with two generations, including four groups: 32 elderly female Holocaust survivors and 47 daughters, and 33 elderly women in the comparison group, and 32 daughters (total N = 174). Participants completed several measures of mental and physical health, and their cognitive functioning was examined. The current study is a follow-up of a previous study conducted 11 years ago with the same participants.

RESULTS: Holocaust survivors showed more dissociative symptomatology (odds = 2.39) and less satisfaction with their life (odds = 2.79) as compared to a matched group. Nonetheless, adult offspring of Holocaust survivors showed no differences in their physical, psychological, and cognitive functioning as compared to matched controls.

CONCLUSIONS: Holocaust survivors still display posttraumatic stress symptoms almost 70 years after the trauma, whereas no intergenerational transmission of trauma was found among the second generation.

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