Long after the reds, greens and golds of the holiday season have faded away, many seniors are left with something else: The winter blues. While for some this is merely a temporary funk, for others it may be a medical condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Here’s what all caregivers need to know about SAD and depression in the elderly, along with along with tips for boosting senior spirits during this sometimes dark time of year.
What is SAD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons—SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.”
Four to six percent of people suffer from winter depression, while up to 20 percent may have mild SAD, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. SAD is more common in women than it is in men, and also more common in northern regions: For example, people in Washington state are seven times more likely to have SAD than people in Florida.
Symptoms of SAD may include feelings of ongoing depression; loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities; low energy; difficulty sleeping; changes in weight or appetite; feelings of sluggishness or agitation; difficulty concentrating; feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt; and thoughts of death or suicide.
Additionally, winter-onset SAD may also comprise symptoms including oversleeping; increased cravings for high-carbohydrate foods; weight gain; and tiredness.
And while scientists are still trying to determine the exact reasons for SAD, they believe it is caused by the impact of reduced exposure to sunlight on the body’s circadian rhythms, serotonin levels, and melatonin production—all of which can impact how we feel.
SAD and Seniors
Why is SAD a problem for seniors? Explains SeniorHealth365, “The elderly are often less mobile, fairly intolerant to cold and may be suffering with underlying conditions that are aggravated in the winter months. These are all factors that can decrease their time outdoors during the sunlight hours and increase the chances of depression. If there is pre-existing depression, then the condition is often aggravated further in the winter months.” Certain medications for chronic conditions may also increase the risk of SAD.
Treating SAD in Seniors
If a senior in your care is experiencing these symptoms for days at a time, consult with his/her physician. Certain treatments, including phototherapy (light therapy), psychotherapy, and medication can help prevent complications.
Additionally, there are some non-clinical ways to manage SAD, including daily walks outdoor; opening blinds and curtains to let as much light into living spaces as possible; regular outdoor or indoor exercise; and a healthy diet. Cultivating plenty of opportunities for social engagement and well as creating a vibrant indoor environment are others ways caregivers can help seniors cope with SAD.
And don’t forget—caregivers are far from immune to SAD. In addition to keeping watch for signs and symptoms of SAD in seniors, caregivers should also maintain awareness of their own mental health and wellness.If you're looking for a comprehensive resource for family caregivers, check out our online Family Caregiver Guide.
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