Depression Pays Holiday Visit to Seniors: What a Family Caregiver Can Do

‘Tis the season of joy! Maybe not…

Recently I spoke with a geriatric specialist who said “I wish they would cancel December”. This specialist was not being a Scrooge but in actuality was stating obvious concern for seniors from years of experience with elders.

Experience shows that for elders the holiday season can trigger a seasonal depression (also known as seasonal affective disorder – SAD) that can take a harmful toll on their well-being. If depression is already a concern, seasonal depression will make the current problem worse. Often it is unrecognized by even the most attentive family caregivers. Symptoms often mimic what we are expecting as part of our senior loved ones’ ongoing physical status. These symptoms can include fatigue, desire to sleep more, apathy, desire to be left alone, low energy and weight gain due to carbohydrate cravings.

Those caregivers who do recognize a change in mood may chalk it up to cabin fever over the winter months. Seasonal depression is a clinical condition which should be evaluated by a doctor and the appropriate treatment or interventions initiated. There are harmful outcomes of unchecked seasonal depression for elders including suicide who, according to the CDC, account for 16% of suicides while they are only 12% of the population. White men over 85 are at six times higher risk for committing suicide than the general public.

Holidays Contribute to Seasonal Depression for Senior Loved Ones

During the holiday season, elders can begin to experience a heightened sense of loss as memories come flooding back everywhere they look.

  • Loss of family members including their spouse, their mother or even their grandmother, their children, their siblings, and their pets. These thoughts come about during family visits, reminiscing about the “good old days” and family sharing.
  • Loss of traditions. The smell of the cookies their grandmother made when they were children, the special family side dish that is only served on Christmas Eve, missing the ability to go to church, watching a special holiday program and many other triggers that bring back childhood memories and long lost family traditions.
  • Loss of independence. As seniors look to the New Year, they may wonder what it will bring in terms of their declining health or the inevitability of life. They may have experienced health and functional declines in the past year that they continue to struggle with in terms of acceptance. Loss of functional abilities such as walking, personal care, household chores and having to allow others to do things for them can be a painful emotional loss.
  • Loneliness creeps in when family members come to visit then leave them alone again. Isolation from friends, family and their prior lifestyle can be a strong trigger.
  • Not being able to be in their own home with their own holiday decorations if they are living in a residential facility.
  • Forgetting the names of key figures in their life such as grandchildren’s names, or even their own children’s names, when they pay a holiday visit may cause a reality check that function and cognition has truly declined.

Family Caregivers Can Help Relieve Seasonal Depression

  1. Bring your senior into the light. Literally! Take them for a walk outside, sit on the porch in a sunny day or even a cloudy one, open the blinds and curtains or keep some higher wattage light bulbs in the lamp where they sit. Low light levels during the winter months can worsen seasonal depression.
  2. Talk over your concerns with your senior’s physician and get some treatment ideas from the specialist. Don’t assume that these mood changes are winter blues as they could be coming from another physical source that may need further workup.
  3. Be sure they eat a healthy diet that is rich in variety to provide essential vitamins and minerals.
  4. Stay physically active through walking or other movement activities.
  5. Continue to participate in living! Stay engaged with hobbies, events, and activities to relieve boredom and loneliness.

We all want our senior loved ones to be healthy, active and happy – not just during the winter but all year long. We may feel that sharing the holidays will bring our loved ones only joy and happiness and try to cram as much fun and family activity as can fit in a day. However, we should remember to remain attentive to non-verbal clues that the holidays are not spreading cheer to our seniors but actually setting them up for depression.

Act if you see signs of mood changes that could impair your senior’s health and you will spend a happy new year together.