For seniors living in colder climates, the winter months bring challenges that they didn’t have to worry about as much in their younger years. Ice and snow can increase the risk of falls and restrict seniors from leaving their homes. Hypothermia is sometimes a problem for seniors who suffer from decrease circulation or who have trouble paying their utility bills. Seniors with lowered immunity face higher risks of contracting a cold or the flu. And, for many seniors, a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can set in.
SAD affects people of all ages but poses an increased threat to seniors. For one, it is often brushed aside as “just” the winter blues or “just” being in a bad mood. But, SAD is more than simply feeling a bit down because it’s winter.
SAD is a serious condition characterized by recurrent episodes of depression, usually starting in late fall and lasting as long as April or May. During the rest of the year, people affected by SAD might be characterized as happy and energetic. But, when winter rolls around, they suddenly experience decreased energy, little interest in activities that were once enjoyed, trouble sleeping, drastic changes in appetite, and feelings of hopelessness.
Many health professionals believe that the neurotransmitter serotonin may not function optimally in people afflicted with SAD. Although SAD can be treated with antidepressants, for many seniors, the side effects of the drugs means trading one set of problems for another. In those cases, it’s advisable to try other options first.
Here’s how light therapy, nutrition, social connection, and exercise, can combat SAD and help seniors live a healthy lifestyle throughout the long winter months.
Light therapy uses a contraption called a light box, which is essentially a specific type of fluorescent lamp designed to imitate natural sunlight. This is not like bringing a tanning bed into your home. Light therapy light boxes have a filter that blocks UV rays so that the patient’s eyes and skin are not damaged.
When used properly, Light Boxes may help regulate the amount of serotonin that SAD suffers produce. For most people, sitting in front of the box for 30-45 every morning is sufficient. They can, of course, participate in any activity they like during this time as long as it doesn’t involve getting up and moving around.
Whenever possible, natural sunlight is preferable to a light box, but if a senior is homebound, has trouble walking (especially in hazardous winter conditions), or the weather is continually dark and overcast, daily time in front of a light box can be an excellent solution.
For most of us, there’s something about Fall and Winter that makes us crave “comfort food”. The problem with many comfort food favorites is that they tend to be on the fattier side, and often loaded with carbs and sugar. While there’s no harm in indulging in the occasional a bowl of baked mac and cheese or slice of warm apple pie, a steady diet of unhealthy food can leave Seniors feeling lethargic and less prone to maintain an active routine.
While getting proper nutrition is often not enough to combat SAD all by itself, a healthy diet can support serotonin levels in a variety of direct and indirect ways. It’s especially important to make sure that vitamin and mineral rich fruits and vegetables are well represented in the diet.
Foods that are high in fiber, including apples and nuts, also help to keep the immune system strong. And foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce joint pain through anti-inflammation, it might even work to fight off depression.
The Importance of Human Connection
For many seniors, the holidays are a time of year when they get to reconnect with family members and attend organized functions with friends and community members. But, come January, much of the seasons social activities dies off, leaving many seniors with too much time alone.
This becomes a vicious cycle. Too little social contact can contribute to the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Since a common symptom of SAD is a loss of interest in socializing, it can be difficult to get seniors out and about so that they receive the human connection they need to feel better.
For many seniors, in-home visits from friends, family members and care takers can be a good start. It can also be useful for seniors to enroll in a scheduled class or activity during the warmer months, when they’re feeling up to social interaction. Knowing that others will notice their absence is sometimes enough of a boost to get them out the door even after SAD sets in.
Get Moving! Physical Exercise is often the best defense against SAD
When it comes to physical exercise, there is a tremendous connection between mind and body. Not only does physical exercise help keep our body healthy, it is a natural mood enhancer, supports overall cognitive function, and increases the amount of serotonin that our bodies release.
A study in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience indicated that exercise can improve major depressive disorder by helping new neurons grow in the brain. Even short periods of exercise, like a 10-minute walk, can relieve immediate feelings of anxiety and depression.
When the weather prevents seniors from getting outside for exercise or even leaving their home, maintaining an at-home exercise routine is a great solution.
For seniors who live in a senior living community or who aren’t afraid to drive in poor weather, taking fitness classes or working with a personal trainer can be a great workout option. Exercise options that involve other people come with the extra benefit of spending time with others, providing the social connection that can also help fight off the symptoms of SAD.
5 Exercises that combat the winter blues
#1. Walking or bicycling. Aerobic activities like a brisk walk or bicycle ride generates endorphins that improve mood and help fight depression. Other great aerobic activities include dancing, biking, stair climbing, rowing, and swimming.
#2. Hiking. While not always possible during the winter months, getting outside and spending time in nature has been shown to lower stress and improve mood.
#3. Yoga. Yoga has been shown to alleviate depression, anger, anxiety, and neurotic symptoms. For Seniors suffering from SAD, yoga can be especially beneficial because the breathing techniques can deliver an extra anti-depression boost.
#4. Tai Chi. The emphasizes on slow, thoughtful movements and breathing make Tai Chi similar to yoga in its effect on depression. However, some researchers believe that many of the benefits of Tai Chi are because of its social aspects.
#5. Strength training. Strength training includes weightlifting, resistance training, and body weight exercises such as squats and push-ups. Regular strength training builds muscle and makes people stronger, of course. But, there’s a significant amount of research showing that strength training can also improve mood.
In fact, the impact that strength training has on mood might be the most significant for people with mild or moderate symptoms of depression. Strength training has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression independent of whether or not the person gets stronger and has an effect regardless of how healthy people are when they begin a strength training program.