Overcoming the Winter Blues That Can Strike Seniors and Caregivers

As the winter months progress and the sun doesn’t shine as much, many seniors can fall victim to the winter blues.

Yes, it can happen to family caregivers as well.

It can be driven in part by a lack of sunlight and fueled by those times during the recently-ended holidays spent thinking of loved ones no longer here — a recipe for the blues for both seniors and caregivers.

Caregivers should be on the lookout for signs that the blues have come calling in their senior (or themselves) so that the blues can be sent on their way before they become an unstoppable force.

A gray day with clouds and fog can sometimes create a situation in which seniors can’t find the sunny side in themselves.

As many as 15% of the population can feel sad in the winter and 5% can have a severe reaction and health consequences.

Being SAD

Winter blues that follow a specific set of guidelines is referred to as SAD – seasonal affective disorder.

Symptoms include increased fatigue, sleeping more, eating more foods that aren’t healthy, and weight gain. More serious is a disinterest in life and a feeling of despair.

Memory and concentration can also be affected which makes some of our seniors’ previous symptoms even worse.

Depression often follows.

Help for the Winter Blues

People who experience blues in the winter can try using a light box or a dawn simulator to give their body clocks a sense that the sun is shining on them.

Sometimes antidepressants (properly prescribed, of course) are useful to improve symptoms of the blues. If the blues are brought on by the seasons and not by your senior’s situation — that is recent loss, change in functional status or lack of fulfillment or purpose — the antidepressant can also be used seasonally and not year-round.

Seniors should also have a set sleep schedule avoiding the desire to sleep late or go to bed early, which can also hinder their circadian rhythms.

Getting physical during the day and staying active can help. Physical activity helps to release natural endorphins that can fight feelings of sadness.

Depression in Seniors

Growing older does not mean one has to grow sadder. However, seniors are at a greater risk of becoming depressed, especially when they have one or more chronic medical conditions.

Depression is not a symptom of aging and should be recognized and treated in our senior adults.

Depression is more severe than the blues and is treatable.

Unfortunately, many seniors are not diagnosed appropriately to get the treatment they need to improve and are often misdiagnosed. Some healthcare providers accept their signs of depression as a natural reaction to the senior’s life as they age so don’t pursue treatment protocols that can help.

Sometimes our senior loved ones don’t share all their symptoms with their doctors or their caregivers, again assuming it is part of growing older.

A senior who is experiencing depression may have symptoms that last weeks at a time or longer.

They will also show these symptoms that caregivers can be observant for:

  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disinterest
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Thoughts or attempts at suicide
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Physical complaints
  • Fatigue

Get Moving!

Seniors and the rest of us who may begin feeling blue in the gray winter days can work to improve their outlook by getting moving.

For many of our seniors, it is still cold where they live so getting outdoors to get moving is not going to be the healthiest solution. That means it will be important to get creative when we get physical.

There are many things seniors can do to start moving without going outside, such as going to the nearest mall and walking the halls while you do a little window shopping. Mall walking is great because the climate is controlled and the floor is free from obstacles that could lead to falls.

If your senior doesn’t have a mall close by, you can always do laps in the grocery store or big box store nearby.

Seniors can also turn the living room into a dance studio and play some of their favorite music while they dance. Dancing is a great way to get physical that is enjoyable and doesn’t feel like work.

It is a good time to turn off the TV and find something to do to keep moving. It could be housework, organizing a closet or de-cluttering the basement.

Another fun activity that seniors can enjoy in the house is exergaming. Playing video games that keep them moving like golf or tennis or dance party or any other one that they like.

Seniors can also keep their mind busy and active with a variety of simple pleasures like reading, doing crosswords or puzzles, talking with friends, and other brain stimulating pursuits.

Fun Times Lead to Smiles

There are a variety of other activities that senior loved ones and family caregivers can do to break the winter doldrums that can lead to depression.

Get a massage, take a class, try a new food or recipe, start yoga or tai chi, keep a journal of your current thoughts or prior experiences, or learn to crochet.

Consider something out of your senior’s usual routine.

Maybe finding a way to give back to others through volunteerism in a task that your senior cares about such as an animal shelter, the library or a school will help fight the blues. If they can achieve it, helping others can give meaning to their days and reduce their winter blues.

Avoiding the tendency to be isolated alone in their homes with few visitors will help them fight the blues.

As we muddle through the winter months and look forward to the brightness of spring, it is important for family caregivers and their senior loved ones to fight the blues brought on by gray days and changes in their lives.

Finding ways to bring joy into even the grayest day will help seniors and caregivers.

Don’t assume your senior’s sadness is a fact of aging and get them the help that is needed to ensure they keep smiling towards the sunny days to come.