Here in Chicago and around the country, the winter season brings gray days and frigid temperatures, sometimes for weeks on end.
During the winter months, it’s easy for people of all ages to start to feel cooped up, and even a little moody. You may hear this all-too-common winter slump called something like “cabin fever,” or the “winter blues.”
With endless cold weather and the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s quite natural to feel a bit down during the long winter season. This is especially true for seniors, who may feel the dual pangs of limited mobility and social isolation more acutely at the end of the year.
However, if you or a loved one is feeling deep sadness, lethargy, or restlessness for an extended period of time, experts warn that it could be a more serious condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
As the Cleveland Clinic explains, Seasonal Affective Disorder “is a depression that occurs each year at the same time, usually starting in fall, worsening in winter, and ending in spring.”
While it has become something of a buzzword in recent years, SAD is perhaps less common that you might think. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about half a million people in the United States suffer from winter SAD each year. With that said, it is estimated that about 10 to 20% of the population may suffer from a milder form of seasonal depression, which can cause similar effects and symptoms, including:
- Loss of energy
- Lack of interest in activities
- Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, and irritability
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Changes in appetite (such as overeating)
- Changes in sleep patterns
As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes, SAD is four times more common in women than men. The disorder tends to be more common the further you get from the equator, and, notably, the NIMH reports that “younger adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults.”
With that said, overall rates of depression in the elderly are high. Data cited by LiveWell suggests that more than 6 million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from depression. To make matters worse, the condition often goes underdiagnosed and unreported, as it gets confused. In fact, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that roughly 20% of adults aged 55 or older have experienced some type of mental health concern — yet only about one in three have received treatment.
To make matters worse, winter can be mentally challenging for older adults. It’s easy to feel isolated due to the weather, brought down by seasonal illness, or left out during the holiday season, which can all increase the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
What Can Family Caregivers Do to Help?
If you notice any of the warning signs of depression in your elderly loved ones, be sure to help them get in touch with a medical professional as quickly as possible. A doctor can help determine if your loved one is experiencing cabin fever, or something more serious. If your loved one is dealing with SAD, there may be treatment options available that can help them manage the symptoms; in other cases, it may fall to family caregivers to help elderly adults make some key lifestyle changes.
Have a senior loved one dealing with the winter blues — or facing your own seasonal challenges as a family caregiver? Here are a few proven ways to help ward off some of the effects of wintertime depression:
Find Treatments for SAD
If your loved one is diagnosed with SAD, medical professionals often recommend a course of action which may include some combination of medication, talk therapy, and light therapy, which is intended to “replace the diminished sunshine of the fall and winter months using daily exposure to bright, artificial light,” according to the NIMH, which explains:
“Light therapy has been a mainstay of treatment for SAD since the 1980s. …Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning, on a daily basis from the early fall until spring.”
Increase Vitamin D Consumption
As the NIMH reports, individuals with SAD are often found to have “low blood levels of vitamin D.” Sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is vital for maintaining a healthy heart, strong bones, and a functioning immune system. Vitamin D deficiency is particularly prevalent — and dangerous — for older adults. If testing reveals that your older loved one is deficient in vitamin D, they may benefit from spending more time in the sunlight, or taking supplements. Even more effective may be helping your loved one eat a diet rich in vitamin D, which can come from sources like egg yolks, cheese, and fatty fish (such as salmon). Some common household staples, like milk, yogurt, cereals and juice, also come fortified with higher levels of vitamin D.
Get Active and Stay Engaged
Getting physically and socially active can help people of all ages fend off the winter blues. Health and wellness recommend that older adults strive for 30 minutes of exercise per day. Seniors who remain socially connected also report having better mental health than their more isolated peers, so make it a goal to help your loved one keep up with hobbies and social activities (like church groups, continuing education classes, community center meetups, and card games, to name a few). Take care to help your senior loved ones get involved in holiday celebrations, and encourage them to spend as much time as possible with friends and family.
Eat and Drink Responsibly
Have you ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”? Studies have shown that there is a direct link between what we eat and drink and our overall health. During the winter months, experts encourage seniors to limit their alcohol consumption and focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet — while cutting back on sugary, starchy snacks. Encourage your loved one to drink plenty of water, and make it as easy as possible for them to access fluids, so they can stay hydrated and healthy all season long.
Let There Be Light
A little bit of light can go a long way! Encourage your loved one to open their window curtains and let in sunlight on particularly bright days. You may even help your senior family member set up their favorite chair or table in an area that gets lots of natural light. Just as importantly, help your loved one spend some quality time outdoors, as much as possible. It’s hard to overstate the healing and restorative powers of fresh air, natural light, and a little bit of time spent in nature.
Looking for Extra Help During the Winter Months? Companion Care May Be the Right Fit
With holidays, travel, and unpredictable weather around every corner, the winter months can be hectic and difficult, both for seniors and for the family caregivers who love and support them.
If you have an elderly loved one who could benefit from personalized support and attention — or even a regular check-in from a smiling, trustworthy friend — this winter may be the perfect time to look into companion care. Companion care focuses on providing seniors with the practical, day-to-day support they need to live independently, while also promoting improved social and emotional well-being for older adults.
Companion care is a flexible, affordable, and adaptable way to make sure your loved one can make the most of the winter season. Throughout the winter months, a senior companion can help improve your loved one’s quality of life and lift their spirits by:
- Providing support with activities of daily living (ADLs)
- Offering driving services for errands, social gatherings, doctor’s appointments, and more
- Assisting with the shopping, preparation, and service of nutritious meals
- Helping with light housekeeping and laundry
- Offering medication and exercise reminders
- Helping seniors connect with their family and friends
- Spending quality time together
About Companions for Seniors
Want to talk in more depth about what the winter months may bring for your elderly loved ones? Are you looking for professional help in caring for your aging family members during the holiday season? We’re here and happy to help!
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Companions for Seniors. We’re here to be your resource for all things senior care. Get in touch, and we can discuss the best plan of action for you and your family.
Our companions are trained and bonded, and can help your family shoulder some of the responsibilities of caring for an aging loved one. We are locally owned and operated in Chicago, with clients in the city and suburbs.
We help provide seniors with a higher quality of life, while also offering respite and peace of mind for family caregivers who might need some support. Our companions help stimulate our clients physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, empowering them to live an active and enriched lifestyle, connect with their community, and nurture truly meaningful relationships.
Ready to get started? Get in touch online or give us a call at 866-910-9020 today!