Seasonal Affective Disorder in Seniors During Winter
Seasonal depression is real, and it can be intensified with age as we face health challenges, loss of loved ones, and changes to daily routines that don’t serve us like they once did. Seasonal depression, better known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD (the irony of the acronym is not lost of me!), affects millions of people. While there’s no one confirmed cause leading to SAD, there are a few factors that could increase your chances of having SAD. There could be special circumstances or varying degrees of factors, so be sure to consider these in the context of your own situation. According to the National Institutes for Health, common risk factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder include:
- Being female. SAD is diagnosed four times more often in women than men.
- Living far from the equator. SAD is more frequent in people who live far north or south of the equator. For example, 1 percent of those who live in Florida and 9 percent of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD.
- Family history. People with a family history of other types of depression are more likely to develop SAD than people who do not have a family history of depression.
- Having depression or bipolar disorder. The symptoms of depression may worsen with the seasons if you have one of these conditions (but SAD is diagnosed only if seasonal depressions are the most common).
In addition to having common risk factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are other reasons that seasonal depression may be amplified for you:
As we get older, life changes happen in our relationships. Beloved friends and family pass away and memories of great times make us nostalgic. Acknowledge why you might be sad or depressed and don’t feel bad about it. Know that you can make different memories today. Situational depression is usually short-term.
Physical and Mental
I pair these together because our physical health affects our mental health and our mental health affects our physical health. If you can’t get out of bed because you’re feeling depressed, then your physical body starts to decline. Without moving around, muscles atrophy. We don’t eat right, we don’t sleep well, we don’t stay hydrated, we become isolated. And this fuels our depression.
There is a difference between genetic depression and situational depression brought on by environment or life events. Situational depression usually starts as something acute (short-term) but can grow into something long-term if not addressed. While genetic depression may be worsened by a change in season, it is not something that can be cured simply by changing an outlook. If it’s genetic, it may require some extra assistance, i.e. medication, so that you can achieve a great quality of life.
What to Do
If you’re recognizing a seasonal pattern in your mental wellness, you may suspect that you’re suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Here are some steps you can take:
1. Get your hormone levels checked. Low testosterone levels are a huge factor when it comes to feelings of depression. Also, a key contributing factor to SAD may be an overproduction of melatonin.
2. Ask yourself what kind of depression you may be dealing with; self-assess, but don’t self-diagnose (there are doctors and nurse practitioners for that)! By self-assessing based on the information above, you can be prepared to have an effective conversation with your primary care provider the next time you see them. Being familiar with what kind of depression you may be dealing with can help you be an engaged participant with your care provider in developing a plan to address it. Here is a tool to help you prepare.
3. Don’t do anything in a vacuum. While any step is better than none, thinking that any one step is going to make you feel 100% better isn’t realistic. Look at your situation holistically and then make a plan (Or have someone else make a plan for you! Call us!).
Example of a Plan
Physical Goal – Take a 10 minute walk 3 times per week
Mental Goal – Meditate once a week
Sleep Goal – Go to bed by 11pm. Some of the biggest factors to effective sleep are how long you sleep, a consistent wake up time, how much time it takes you to fall asleep, and how long it takes you to leave bed.
Eating Goal – Eat at least 1 serving of fruit and vegetables every day for starters. For guidelines on what you should work up to, ChooseMyPlate.com is a fun and easy tool to use.
Medication Goal – If I need medication, I will take it consistently. I will ask my doctor about any interactions my medications may be having that contribute to my feelings of depression. (We are huge believers in not jumping to medications, but they do have a time and place and when used effectively, are irreplaceable. But make sure you don’t go right from “I’m depressed” to taking meds without addressing the root causes or other contributing factors, as it may have a much more limited effect and cause unnecessary side effects.)
Once you receive an informative diagnosis and/or prescription from your care provider, there are medication management tools you can utilize at home to keep you on track with all your medications.
Other To-Do Tasks:
I will get my hormone levels checked.
I will TELL SOMEONE about my plan! If there is no one checking on me or holding me accountable, will I get it done? (A superhuman it might, but for the rest of the world, we need someone to check on us and encourage us.)
I will put on some music. Music has a lot of power. I may not want to be around anyone, so I will welcome the positive vibrations that come from music. (And look no further than this Happiness Playlist! )
Some other ideas for goals: Learn how to use social media, visit a place that you love, find a new kind of routine with small pleasures (i.e., a new kind of tea you can drink every morning). Here are some tips on alleviating senior isolation and depression that would be helpful as well!
What To Do If You Suspect Seasonal Affective Disorder in a Loved One
You can tell them to cheer up, but it probably won’t be well received. We all have bad days. And the platinum rule (“Treat others the way they would like to be treated.”) is probably the best approach. Some good questions you could ask them:
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“What makes you feel happy?”
“If it can change your quality of life and make you feel better, would you consider creating a game plan?”
(Then use the goals template above to create some goals for them.)
Start small. If you have never worked out in your life and decide to go to the gym every day, you’ll burn out and most likely revert to where you started. But if you start with one day a week, it’s more manageable for your body to adapt. Habits start small and are formed by consistency. In the same way, start small with how you help someone. This month, maybe it’s fresh flowers once a week. Next month, maybe it’s sharing a meal with them and eventually taking them out to an event. Be genuine. Be authentic. No one wants to feel like a charity case.
**Depression is a real issue. Seek change and go to your primary care provider for help. If you had or are having suicidal ideation, call 1-800-273-8255. Don’t stop yourself from getting help because you feel ashamed, feel bad, or don’t want someone to think there is something wrong with you. You’re here, and you matter. If there is ever a time when you are not ‘taken seriously’, we will help you find a provider who can assist you.
Whatever season find yourself in, I hope you will use all the tools and people in your life to make it one of happiness and joy so that tomorrow it will be worth remembering. “Happy Season” to you and your loved ones!