Have you noticed a sadness in your loved one in the winter? Have they gained weight or been sleeping more than normal? Have you felt them pull away, expressing their desire to be alone?
Seasonal depression in seniors happens and is serious. It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms while differentiating from the much more common occurrence of seasonal blues. Read on to learn how to do so.
How to Recognize Seasonal Depression
Seasonal Blues vs Seasonal Depression
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression corresponding to a particular time of the year. For most people, symptoms appear in the fall and continue through the winter.
This type of depression is different from the common sadness many of us feel during this time. You may experience a change of mood in the winter caused by the weather being colder and the days being shorter. This phenomenon has been dubbed seasonal blues or winter blues.
As someone experiencing seasonal blues, it’s common to feel lethargic and gloomy. However, if these feelings hinder your ability to function regularly, you may be experiencing seasonal depression.
Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
To help you spot signs of depression, we’ve gathered some common ones. Those with SAD may or may not experience all of the following symptoms:
- Feelings of sadness for most of the day and on most days
- Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Having trouble going to sleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much
- Feeling fatigued or irritable
- Experiencing feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, or guilt
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Frequent thoughts about suicide or death
For SAD associated with the winter months, it’s common to see the following:
- Overeating leading to weight gain
- A desire to be alone
Causes of Seasonal Depression
While environmental circumstances are not a direct cause of SAD, they build a foundation from which depression can result. Furthermore, the effects of these environmental factors can be intensified around the holidays. For seniors, these include the following:
- Deceased family and friends
- No longer being near family or friends
- Loss of independence and having to rely on others to take care of basic needs
- Financial stress
Seasonal depression is experienced more commonly by individuals living further north. This is due to the days being shorter, resulting in fewer daylight hours. Additionally, the colder it is, the less likely one is to go outside to spend time in the sun.
The scientific explanation for seasonal depression is not yet fully comprehended. However, studies have uncovered some information that gives us a glimpse into its biological causes.
Those with SAD may experience reduced serotonin activity. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for helping to regulate mood.
Studies have also found that those with SAD may produce more melatonin than is typical. This hormone normally assists in maintaining sleep cycles, although too much can cause feelings of lethargy or sleepiness.
Disruption in either serotonin or melatonin can alter body rhythms, leaving affected individuals without a way to properly readjust. This can cause many of the behavioral and mood changes associated with seasonal depression.
How Seasonal Depression is Treated
Remember how we discussed the fact that diminished daylight hours can play a role in causing SAD? One way this problem can be addressed is by participating in light therapy. This treatment exposes the individual to bright light every day in an effort to make up for those lost daylight hours. The light is created by special bulbs that mimic the sun’s rays.
Typically, the person will sit in front of a bright light box every day for between 30 to 45 minutes. It’s important this is done first thing in the morning, as this helps maintain the body’s regular cycle.
Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, can be useful for identifying and altering unpleasant emotions or thoughts as well as the behaviors associated with them. This type of therapy can assist with the following:
- Monitoring and recognizing emotions
- Identifying strategies for dealing with stress
- Determining a plan of action for periods in which the person recognizes their own negative feelings
Some individuals experience positive results by taking antidepressants. If you think this may be the right solution, talk with your loved one’s doctor. If they agree, you should also discuss which medication should be taken to limit side effects and what time of the year to begin taking medication.
How To Prevent And Monitor Seasonal Depression In Seniors
Use the Geriatric Depression Scale
The Geriatric Depression Scale is a 15-question self-report that can be used to screen seniors for depression. You can utilize the questions in conversation with your loved one to detect symptoms early on.
Planning fun events in the winter can help seniors associate this time with positivity rather than dread or sadness. Additionally, encouraging movement such as walking will keep them physically active. Outings that get the person into sunlight may also make a significant impact on their well-being.
Give Them the Opportunity to Talk
Simply spending time talking with an individual gives them the opportunity to discuss how they’re feeling.
You should also understand that your loved ones may not feel comfortable talking with you if they have concerns about their mental health. Ensure they have someone to speak with, even if it’s not you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s phone number is 800-273-8255, and there are alternative options for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Let them know this resource is available 24/7.
Why Seasonal Depression Happens Around The Holidays
In summary, seasonal depression can result from the days becoming colder and shorter. However, this phenomenon is much more serious than the seasonal blues many of us feel during this time. To determine the difference, pay attention to whether these feelings are disrupting the daily life of your loved one.
If the person does have seasonal depression, there are various treatment options including light therapy, psychotherapy, and medication. To prevent and monitor seasonal depression, utilize depression rating tools in your conversations, plan fun outings, and give them the opportunity to express their feelings.
If you have questions about seasonal depression or believe your loved one may be experiencing it, reach out to us. While navigating this path may seem intimidating or scary at first, we’re here to support you.