With the arrival of late-autumn and early-winter, it is time to start thinking about the all of the elements of health that need to be tended to in the cold-weather months.
Managing all of the factors that come with the colder weather can be challenging for all of us, but can be especially difficult for seniors. Making sure that seniors remain safe and comfortable within their homes through the fall and winter seasons requires that attention be payed to some important factors.
As cold weather and shorter days set in, we are forced to deal with the many things that come along with cold weather seasons. We ensure that we, and our loved ones, have appropriate clothing and comforts available to combat and manage the colder temperatures, both within the home and outside, and we make appropriate upkeep and safety arrangements to deal with rain, snow, and ice.
It is important also, however, to make sure that we recognize and direct attention to the impacts that these colder and darker seasons can have upon mental health and wellbeing of our senior loved ones.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder, often referred to as “SAD”, is a mood disorder that cycles with the seasons. It is a form of depression that is related strongly to seasonal changes in light, and affects most people in the late fall and winter when days are shorter and sunlight is limited. It is speculated that the shorter days disrupt our bodies’ circadian rhythms, as well as change levels of serotonin and melatonin. Symptoms of SAD can often begin to manifest in late autumn and carry right through to the end of winter. Basically, Seasonal Affective Disorder is, in more colloquial language, an intense case of the “winter blues”.
While instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder are not limited to a particular age-group, Seniors can be at particular risk of experiencing SAD, as a result of certain lifestyle elements and vulnerability factors that are associated with older age. The following are all common features of older age that put seniors at risk of experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Restricted mobility
- Feelings of loneliness or isolation
- Limited time outdoors with exposure to natural sunlight
- Sensitivity or intolerance to cold
Keeping an Eye Out
Symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder, are akin to those attributed to other forms of depression, and can include:
- Social Withdrawal
- Oversleeping and Daytime Sleepiness OR Insomnia and Disturbed Sleep
- Decrease Interest in Activities
- Increased Appetite
- Increased Appetite
- Weight Gain
- Carbohydrate Cravings
With knowledge of this condition and its symptoms in mind, we can begin to put into place some supports for Seniors that can help to offset or manage the mental and emotional effects that can accompany the cold-weather seasons.
There is no cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder, but implementation of behaviours, practices, and small lifestyle changes can help to manage the symptoms until the seasons change again.
While antidepressant medications are an option to aid in managing symptoms of SAD, non-pharmacological treatments are easy and manageable to put into place, and are capable of making an incredible difference in the wellbeing of your aging loved ones.
- The most popular treatment for SAD is Light Therapy, for which special “light boxes” can be purchased that emit UV rays imitating natural sunlight. These lights can be used in the context of everyday activities, and have been shown to make a meaningful difference in altering mood when used for even just 30-45 minutes a day.
- In a similar vein, focusing on ambient or behavioural changes that bring more sunlight into everyday life can help to manage SAD. Creating ways to bring as much light as possible into the spaces that your Senior loved ones occupy can be incredibly effective in minimizing symptoms. Opening blinds and curtains, moving beds, chairs or sofas nearer to windows, adding colourful bright touches to rooms, and having more plants around are all small changes that can make a huge difference.
- Another wonderful way to experience more natural light is to get outside. Spending time outdoors during daylight hours can be even better than sitting with a light box, and also provides seniors with the opportunity to get some exercise, which can help to relieve stress and has been proven to lift spirits.
The cold weather seasons bring with them many wonderful things, such as beautiful scenery, many holidays, and opportunities to take up new hobbies or make new memories, but late fall and winter also bring with them their difficulties for seniors.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a reality for many seniors in the fall and wintertime, but there are ways in which symptoms of SAD can be addressed and managed to help foster positive mood and create bright spirits despite the darker skies.