Though we may not have to deal with extreme cold here in Alabama, Southern seniors still face at least one of the major winter health risks that older adults from more northern states do—SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that cycles with the seasons, usually worsening in the cooler, gloomy winter months. Its symptoms are similar to those of other forms of depression, but the difference is that people with SAD only feel these symptoms in the fall and winter months.
Warning Signs of SAD
SAD often begins to set in in the fall and winter when the days grow shorter and sunlight becomes scarcer. However, the symptoms of SAD can often worsen by January, when the excitement of the holiday season has faded, so keep a sharp look out for any symptoms that could indicate that your parent is suffering from this seasonal ailment:
- Decreased energy levels
- Increased appetite
- Constant feeling of lethargy and tiredness
The effects of SAD will usually intensify if the senior is confined to the indoors most of the time, and does not get much natural sunlight.
How You Can Help
As a caregiver, you can help your senior combat the symptoms of SAD. Here are some ways to alleviate SAD and improve your loved one’s quality of life during the darker months of the year:
- Natural sunlight. If your parent lives in a place where it’s possible to sit outside for a little while each day during the winter, this may make a big impact on symptoms of SAD.
- Exercise. Even if your loved one isn’t able to get outside to take a walk during the winter, getting into a regular indoor exercise routine can go a long way in helping to fight SAD. Take your parent for a stroll around the neighborhood or at the local mall, sign Dad up for an indoor water aerobics class for seniors, or encourage Mom to take a beginners’ Zumba class at her senior center.
- Stay engaged. Whether it’s volunteering at their church’s weekly supper, playing bingo at the local VFW hall, or attending your family’s functions, keeping Mom and Dad connected with loved ones around will help to pass the dark months of winter in meaningful, positive ways.
- Light therapy. Available online or at specialty retailers, a quality light box that gives off fluorescent light similar to sunlight may be a good solution for SAD. Usually, a person should plan to sit in front of a light box for 30 to 45 minutes each day; though these machines do mimic natural sunlight, the light will not damage an elderly adults skin or eyes.
- Vitamin D. Limited exposure to natural sunlight during the gloomy fall and winter lights can lead to lower levels of Vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D is linked to bone health, as well as to the prevention of certain cancers, incontinence, and even diabetes. Help your parent work more foods rich in Vitamin D into his or her diet year-round to keep levels healthy, including salmon, beef, egg yolks, fortified cereals, and juices. If eating certain foods isn’t enough, talk to your parent’s doctor about whether a Vitamin D supplement could be a good option.
SAD: A Serious Ailment of the Winter Months
If nothing seems to help your parent’s seasonal depression, make sure you seek the advice of your parent’s physician as serious and debilitating symptoms may require treatment by antidepressant medication. Note that these medicines are most effective if they are being taken before symptoms begin, so plan ahead if SAD is something that your parent has struggled with in past years.
The dark, gloomy months can be a tough time of year for everyone, but especially so for seniors who may also be lonely, isolated, and feel confined to their homes. Do what you can to help your parent live a full life each season of the year.