Seasonal Affective Depression (SAD) and Seniors

Seniors Mental Health

November 23, 2021
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Feeling low during the snowy, winter season? Early sunsets and drops in temperature mean that older adults spend significantly more time indoors in the winter than they do in the summer. With less access to public transportation and sensitivity to cold weather, seniors can feel trapped in their homes. This is especially true when seniors live far away from loved ones or lack a close emotional support group. 

There may be a scientific reason to why you feel less than optimal in the winter time. Seasonal affective depression, also known as SAD, affects seniors more seriously than other age groups. Having a routine and regular interaction with friends and family can offset symptoms of SAD. While there is no cure for SAD, there are ways you can cope at home.

What is seasonal affective depression (SAD)?

Seasonal affective depression, also known as SAD, is characterized by sudden loss of energy, feeling lethargic early during the day, being more irritable than usual, and more. Here are some of the common symptoms of SAD:

  • Having negative thoughts
  • Feeling hopeless and unmotivated
  • Feeling tired or sluggish even after a full night’s rest
  • Trouble falling asleep or inconsistent sleep schedules
  • Being less focused on work or school work during the day
  • Unusual changes in your appetite or eating patterns

SAD is caused by changes in your external environment that are out of your control. You may feel like you cannot get out of a rut and want to sleep constantly. SAD is more common in people who live in climates with changing seasons. With less sunlight, the days are shorter and people spend more time indoors or at home. This can make seniors aging at home feel isolated or lonely. SAD starts in the fall and is also called the “winter blues”. 

  • Less sunlight makes for shorter days that can affect your natural circadian rhythm and melatonin production
  • People are less inclined to go on walks when it is dark outside
  • Seniors spend more of their time indoors or at home than they would in the summer months
  • Overproduction of melatonin, the hormone closely associated with sleep, can make you feel more tired during the day
  • Colder temperatures encourage seniors to stay inside and reduce their social contact with friends and neighbors

How Melatonin Fluctuations Affect Seniors’ Health

Decreased melatonin production can turn your whole day around, literally. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel tired and tells your brain it is time to sleep. Changes in your melatonin levels negatively affect your sleep cycle and leave you feeling tired the next morning. 

Poor sleep quality has a significant impact on your mood and makes you more irritable. Fluctuations in melatonin can be caused by

  • Behavioural changes
  • Being stressed out
  • Lack of exposure to sunlight
  • Too much exposure to blue light and heavy screen time
  • Change in diet or routine
  • Lack of physical activity

You might find yourself going to bed earlier than normal, craving carbohydrates and sweets, and spending more time in front of the TV. All of these habits contribute to feeling low and unmotivated. Older adults are more likely to develop SAD because of their lifestyle. Seniors living at home tend to be more sedentary and spend more time indoors due to mobility issues or sun sensitivity. 

Tips for Seniors with Seasonal Affective Depression (SAD)

See your healthcare professional if you think you may be battling symptoms of SAD. Having low energy with no accountability can greatly affect both your physical and mental health as a senior. There is no cure for SAD but you can manage your symptoms by implementing small lifestyle changes. Together, these little improvements will lift your mood and get you back on track. 

  • Stick to a regular daily schedule with achievable goals
  • Try to go outside for a walk at least 3 times a week
  • Add short 15-minute exercises into your afternoon to prevent falling into a mid-day slump
  • Open your curtains to let in sunlight during the day
  • Keep your living space clean to avoid feeling cluttered
  • Explore virtual companionship options if you live far away from friends and family

Complete small daily tasks

Setting realistic goals for yourself is the first step. Make a small to-do list each day and cross off items as you complete them. They can be as simple as brushing your teeth in the morning to stretching for 10 minutes or meditating daily. A visual reminder can make you more accountable and leave you feeling accomplished. 

Increase your exposure to natural light

Let in natural light when possible. Keep your curtains open and let in sunlight into your living space. If this is not possible, consider light therapy or red light therapy. You live in an area where trees block your window from direct sunlight or in a basement apartment. Red light therapy (RTL) is healthy and exposes the body to red infrared light. Your body recognizes this as heat and red light is not damaging for eyes.  Red light therapy can improve your mood and reinstate your natural sleep cycle. 

Move your body

Exercise or move your body for at least 30 minutes each day. You can break these up into 3 10-minute sessions or spend 30 minutes on your treadmill. Staying active improves blood flow throughout your body so you feel less stiff.  The release of endorphins helps lift your mood to get you out of a funk. Diet is also important—make sure you are getting enough nutrients and vitamins in your diet. Look for Vitamin D or other supplements recommended by your doctor. 

Find comfort in companionship

Find a companion that you can spend time with. If you live in a rural area or have limited access to companions, you can search for virtual or digital companion options. This includes conversation robots, digital pets, voice-based virtual assistants, and smart home devices.

Companions can reduce feelings of loneliness in seniors and can also set reminders for medication or important appointments. Having a companion will help you stay accountable and motivate you to reach your goals. Setting small, achievable goals helps you stay on track and gives you a boost of confidence. No matter what age we are, we need to make sure we can hit milestones to feel accomplished. 

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