When the days start to grow shorter, more people retire indoors for the coming cold season. For seniors, fall heralds the start of the dangerous flu season as well. Meanwhile, family get-togethers start to dwindle as ice forms on the road and ground. Mother Nature can actually transform the cooler season into something much darker than the happy times of summer and spring. Mother Nature can cause all people, especially seniors, to suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Have you ever felt sad during the fall or winter? You might be accustomed to accepting these feelings as normal parts of the year. In reality, your symptoms may only reflect the tip of the proverbial iceberg for seniors who risk sickness, loneliness, and problems staying warm when fall arrives. As a result, knowing more about SAD, why seniors are more susceptible to it, and how to prevent it could mean the difference between living or just simply existing.
What Is SAD?
Fall and winter are supposed to be the ideal times for spending time with family and reconnecting with loved ones from afar. However, the cooler months can also bring isolation, sickness and despair. In addition, lower levels of sunlight result in less production of vitamin D in the skin. Since vitamin D is partially responsible for maintaining a positive mood, some people may begin to experience depression-like symptoms. This is commonly known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The symptoms of SAD reflect many of the traditional symptoms of depression, reports the National Institute of Mental Health, which include the following:
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Feeling sad
- Loss of interest
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Unusual changes in appetite
- Problems concentrating
- Craving carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal
The last three symptoms reflect typical actions during the colder seasons. Thanksgiving offers a cornucopia of food. Ice can make social interaction difficult, and who can resist the temptation of bread pudding? Unfortunately, each of these factors contributes to depressive symptoms, creating a positive feedback loop.
Why Are Seniors at an Increased Risk for SAD?
The positive feedback loop is responsible for increasing the risk of SAD in seniors. SAD is a form of depression, and like other forms of depression, it can be successfully managed. Some of the most common treatment measures for SAD include the following:
- Medication Treatment for SAD Symptoms. Medications are not typically used to manage SAD symptoms. Antidepressants work best when taken over extended periods of time. Moreover, the side effects of antidepressants may interact with the medications seniors already take, or the effects of the medication may be too severe to warrant their use. So, you need to think about other non-medication ways of treating SAD.
- Behavioral Therapy Can Alleviate Symptoms, Not Directly Caused by Low Light. Behavioral therapy is an alternative solution to treating SAD, explains MedlinePlus, but it is most effective in treating the other occurrences that contribute to SAD besides low levels of sunlight. For example, seniors who feel abandoned due to family members’ inability to visit may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy. In other words, the counselor or therapist can work with seniors to find ways of avoiding feelings of isolation and encouraging interactions.
- Light Therapy May Be Available. Most health organizations and health care providers promote the use of light therapy to aid symptoms of SAD. As the name suggests, the person receiving this form of therapy is exposed to low levels of synthetic sunlight, otherwise known as a full-spectrum light bulb, throughout the season. This exposure triggers the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin, promoting a healthier, more positive mood. Unfortunately, this form of therapy may be unavailable to seniors with a history of cancer, skin lesions, or the use of medications that interact with ultraviolet radiation.
- Create a Healthy, Productive Environment. The environment around seniors can protect against SAD too. For example, seniors should be able to live throughout the winter in a warm, caring setting, and if such settings are unavailable, senior caregivers or case managers may need to provide assistance with obtaining funding for heating, food or health costs as winter sets in.
Of course, the role of the community and social interaction cannot be understated either.
Community and Social Interaction Protects Against SAD
Similar to other forms of depression, those living with SAD may respond to positive influences in their surroundings, especially other people. Social interaction is also a key component of many other ways of managing SAD, but these alternative treatment measures fall outside of what is considered appropriate treatment.
For example, exercise, taking a vacation to a warmer area, spending time with friends and sticking to a schedule, such as playing cards after dinner with family members, are all ways of reducing the symptoms of SAD, reports Everyday Health.
Community interaction also helps seniors avoid severe cases of SAD by creating a community-inclusive way of managing health. In other words, other people may be more likely to notice behavioral or mood changes in seniors who may be experiencing the symptoms of sad. Simultaneously, social interaction can encourage seniors to engage in fulfilling activities even they do not other “feel like it.” Sometimes, a little bit of encouragement, friendship and compassion can truly change a person’s mind.
Putting It All Together
It would be impractical to say you can take action to prevent 100-percent of seniors from developing SAD in your area. But, it is not impractical to think about reaching out through the media to seniors about why they may feel slightly depressed or just not quite right as the seasons change.
Ultimately, you need to make sure your organization is visible, and you can further this cause by including a comprehensive review of SAD in senior care training. By taking these steps, you can change the life of seniors who feel “left out in the cold.”