Helping the elderly overcome the winter blues |

Helping the elderly overcome the winter blues

Winter brings more than cold temperatures; it often ushers in a wave of seasonal blues. Many seniors experience varying degrees of depression due to lack of sunshine and limited activities throughout the winter season.

Seniors are at a higher risk for depression due to a combination of factors, which include lack of mobility and minimal contact with other people.

If a loved one seems a little down this winter, it’s a good idea to make an extra effort to spend some additional time with him or her. As caregivers, it’s easy to underestimate the power of communication and connection with those around us. Sometimes a simple afternoon spent with the person you’re caring for listening to music, playing cards or looking at photo albums can drastically improve their mental well-being.

If there were not enough medical acronyms overwhelming us already, here is yet another one: seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a serious condition that may require professional care. SAD is caused by lack of exposure to sunlight during the winter months. If you are concerned an elderly friend or relative is experiencing extreme SAD or is depressed, it’s important that you take them to a doctor. Home remedies can only go so far when it comes to strong cases of winter depression.

Some of the more common symptoms of SAD include:

• Lack of energy

• Memory loss

• Sleep problems

• Change in appetite or weight

• Problems concentrating

One of the more common and readily available treatments for SAD is light box therapy. Light box therapy helps keep our body’s serotonin from being transformed into the sleep hormone melatonin. Melatonin helps regulate our circadian clock (sleep and wake cycles).

During the seasons where people are exposed to greater amounts of sunlight, serotonin levels are high and people often are less inclined to feel sleepy, tired and depressed. It is thought that light boxes can mimic natural sunlight and therefore maintain and or increase serotonin.

As the seasons change and the amount of daylight gives way to longer periods of night/darkness, our serotonin levels decrease and our melatonin levels increase. As our body increases the production of melatonin, a chemical signal is sent out that it is time to sleep. This is one reason why many people are less likely to be as active and cheery during winter’s darker days.

Light boxes produce bright, full spectrum light intended to replicate natural daylight. Light produced by these devices should emit more of a blue or green light than white light at 10,000 lumens or more. Use of light therapy is often suggested for 15-45 minutes in the morning hours. Use later in the afternoon and in the evening hours can result in increased difficulty going to sleep. Before you go out and buy one of these devices, you should consult a doctor.

Daily diet also plays an important role in those experiencing the winter blues. According to a study undertaken by a team from the College of Education at the University of Georgia, a vitamin D deficiency may affect mental health. Choosing a healthy, vitamin-rich diet is one the ways to help your loved ones beat the winter blues. Foods such as salmon, eggs, fortified breakfast cereal, and even mushrooms are ideal for helping boost your loved ones’ vitamin D levels. While doses may vary from person to person, research indicates that doses between 1,000 and 2,000 international units are often effective.

In addition to vitamins, our food choices during the winter months may also play an important part in relieving the symptoms of SAD. Tryptophan-rich foods such as lean meat, fish, legumes, nuts and fruits like bananas, figs and prunes assist in increasing serotonin levels.

As we begin to experience the effects of winter, it’s important to assist seniors who struggle with winter depression. If you are concerned about a loved one’s mental or physical health, I encourage you to make an appointment with their doctor.

Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Garfield County. His contact info is 970-328-5526.

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