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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder in Seniors

Now that the hustle of the holiday season is over and the weather is cold and dreary, it can be easy to fall into the “winter blues”. This is especially true for seniors living alone. If these feelings of sadness or loss of energy persist for an extended period, it could be a sign of something more serious.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that can occur at any time of the year, but it is more common during the winter months. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people who experience SAD have reduced levels of serotonin, a neurological chemical that regulates mood, and increased levels of melatonin, the chemical that regulates the body’s internal sleep cycle.

This imbalance of serotonin and melatonin is most often found in seniors, women, and people that already suffer from conditions like anxiety, depression, or hormonal imbalances. Be on the lookout for these common signs of SAD in your loved ones:

  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Lack of interest in hobbies that were once routine
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Change in sleep cycle or sleeping more than usual
  • Decreased energy level
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Change in appetite
  • Weight gain

Managing SAD in Seniors

It is vital to keep a close eye on seniors during the winter months since many signs of SAD are difficult to detect. “Seniors who live alone are at a higher risk of developing SAD due to limited social interaction and physical activity,” said Patricia Schoch, RN, Regional Director of Clinical Services for Elderwood, a leading provider of senior living and senior care services in the Northeast.

There are a variety of recreational activities in Elderwood senior communities including bingo, discussion groups, card clubs, outings, and many other activities. Encouraging seniors to participate in these activities keeps them stimulated and engaged while increasing their overall well-being.

Elderwood’s award-winning Right Moves® wellness program actively engages residents in their community through exercise and activities. Not only does this allow them to increase mobility and maintain independence, it also provides increased social interaction which can play a critical role in preventing SAD,” added Schoch.

Diet is also a key factor in energy level and mood regulation. Because SAD is so closely related to sun exposure, it is likely that a person suffering from SAD is also vitamin D deficient. This is even more likely for seniors because their bodies absorb vitamin D less efficiently than young people. “Many seniors are advised to stay away from vitamin D-rich foods such as cheese and eggs due to other dietary goals. Talk to your doctor about the role that vitamin D may be playing in SAD symptoms,” said Amy Julicher, corporate director of nutritional services for Elderwood.

It is important that senior diets are closely monitored to ensure they are getting what they need to feel their best. “Our nutritional services staff at both assisted living and skilled nursing facilities take extra care to meet the many dietary needs of our residents,” added Julicher.

Talk to Medical Providers

There are a variety of treatments available to manage SAD. Seniors may have other medical conditions that contribute to their mood, energy levels, and overall health. If you have noticed a pattern developing in your loved one, encourage them to visit their medical providers to determine whether they may be experiencing SAD. “Ultimately, talking to the appropriate doctors and developing an individual plan is the best approach to SAD,” said Schoch.

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