Winter weather can keep seniors homebound and isolated. After all, biting cold and snowy days can make anyone want to stay in a warm bed or just sit all day wrapped up in a quilt. A day or two of the “winter blues” can be normal, but when symptoms of depression become debilitating for more than a week or two, caregivers should start looking for a deeper or treatable cause.
Although falls and hypothermia are likely to top the list of caregiver concerns during winter months, seniors are also at risk for these health hazards:
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
A lack of natural light can cause depression in both young and old alike. We don’t know for sure why less sunlight causes depression. One theory is that the seasonal changes interfere with an important amino acid in our bodies called Melatonin, which regulates our sleep-wake cycles and may play a role in mood and appetite.
The main difference between SAD and general depression is that SAD only occurs during certain times of the year. Signs of SAD include a loss of energy, changes in appetite and sleeping habits, irritability, and loss of interest in socializing and other activities. These changes in behavior can be worse if a person cannot or does not want to regularly spend time outdoors. This especially impacts the elderly, who are more likely to be housebound or want to stay indoors.
Like other forms of depression, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medications. A drug-free option is light therapy. It requires a “light box,” a fluorescent lamp that emits a spectrum of light that simulates natural sunlight. A more natural alternative to light therapy is daily exposure to sunlight. If time, physical health, and weather conditions permit, it is beneficial for a person with SAD to go outside for a few minutes on sunny days. In any case, keep lights on, open curtains and blinds to let in natural light, and encourage the person to sit close to a window.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Our skin needs direct contact with the ultraviolet rays of the sun to make one type of Vitamin D. A deficiency of this important nutrient is related to both depression and obesity. Seniors are more likely to have a Vitamin D deficiency for three reasons: 1) elderly skin is less efficient at producing this nutrient, 2) they are usually outside less during cold weather and 3) aging bodies have more difficulty converting and absorbing vitamin D from foods. Also, certain medications, such prednisone, can inhibit the ability to produce and metabolize vitamin D.
A simple blood test can diagnose vitamin D deficiency. The safest way to treat or prevent it is to ensure a senior eats food naturally high in vitamin D, like beef liver, egg yolks, cheeses, mushrooms and fatty fish like salmon. Certain varieties of milk, yogurt, cereals and juice are fortified to contain extra vitamin D.
Check with a Doctor
If you believe an aging loved one may be experiencing something more serious than a short case of the winter blues, encourage them to meet with their doctor to determine if SAD or vitamin D deficiency may be to blame. The physician will work with you both to consider all possible causes and devise an appropriate course of treatment. This may include light therapy, a change of diet or Vitamin D supplements.
Winter can be a hard time to find fun things to do. Anything you can do to help your senior socialize or laugh a little will help fight depression. Arranging visitors may help. If health and mobility allow it, small outings or mini-trips to regional attractions are also a way to break up the monotony of a long winter. The doctor may prescribe companionship care to help your loved one feel more like themselves again.
Winter poses challenges for seniors, but with awareness and planning they can stay healthy and be ready for spring. Dakota Home Care can help aging adults maintain health and independence by providing companionship, meal preparation and personal care. For more information, call 701.633.5373.