Seasonal Depression: An Unexpected Risk for Seniors

Published 11-07-2016 in

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick - even when you're home.”  ~Carol Nelson

Winter is upon us and, along with winter, come the holidays.  For many of us the holidays are a time of joy, winter is just another season, and spring is right around the corner.  Unfortunately, the winter season and the holidays can mean physical and emotional challenges for our elderly loved ones.  The icy, cold and dreary winter days can lead to obvious risks of falls and hypothermia but can also put seniors at risk for other problems such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression, cabin fever and even Vitamin D deficiencies.  If seasonal depression is already a concern, the holidays can escalate the condition.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that cycles with seasons.  SAD can happen any time of year, but most often affects people during the winter months.  It also affects any age group but can be especially hard on the elderly.  For many seniors, the days of ice skating and sledding with children and grandchildren or hours of holiday shopping are over.  Failing eyesight, arthritis and other health problems force seniors to change their lifestyle.  Instead of heading outdoors, they feel much safer staying at home.  Many seniors limit their driving during the winter months as well which can further limit opportunities for social interaction. 

The holidays, though meant to be a time for family and friendship, can worsen the feelings of depression and loneliness brought on by Seasonal Affective Disorder.  During the holidays, older adults may be more aware of the losses they’ve experienced over the years.  The death of a spouse, sibling or other family member, friends who’ve become ill, children and grandchildren who have moved away and even changes in their neighborhood which often leave seniors feeling isolated and friendless; these losses and feelings of loneliness are all felt more strongly during the holiday season.  Holiday cards from old friends will arrive in fewer numbers each year and may bring bad news of illness or death.  Many seniors are also acutely aware of the holiday cards that were not received as they had been in previous years.

Factors that may increase feelings of depression during the winter and holiday season include: financial limitations, loss of independence and mobility, being alone, geographical distance between family members and loved ones, inability to go to holiday religious services, loss of family members and loss of holiday traditions.  Depression is not a natural part of aging and seasonal affective disorder can pose real risks for seniors. Signs of seasonal depression can include sadness that lasts more than a few weeks, a desire to sleep more, low energy or fatigue, withdrawal from regular activities, weight changes and pacing or fidgeting.

There are certainly ways to combat the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  If possible, try to get outside for a few minutes every day.  Fresh air and sunshine can be a mood lifter, just be sure to bundle up.  If getting outdoors is not an option, place a chair in the sunniest spot in the house.  Sit with a good book or write a holiday letter to an old friend and soak in the sunshine to help lift spirits.  Stay physically active, even if that means taking a walk through the house several times a day, and eat a healthy diet.  And of course, try to stay engaged with your hobbies and activities.   

If your loved one is suffering from SAD, acknowledge that the holidays can be difficult.  Listen when they talk, even if they are sharing negative feelings.  Remind them how important they are in your own holiday celebrations and remind them that they are loved. Most importantly, spend time with them.  Share memories from years past, look through photo albums and even try to re-create some of those holiday traditions that are missed so much.  This can be challenging due to the hustle and bustle of the season, but it can make a world of difference to your loved one. 

Proctor Place is a Life Care Retirement Community.  For more information about Proctor Place or to schedule a personalized tour, please contact Amy Durbin at (309) 566-4204.