Avoiding the Winter Blues

February 28, 2018

When we consider the risks that winter can pose for seniors and the elderly, we might think first of the physical dangers associated with harsh weather, like falls on ice, even hypothermia. But the darker, colder days of winter can have psychological affects as well, particularly for those seniors living alone whose mobility issues keep them stuck indoors and isolated. These feelings of loneliness and depression associated with the winter months can sometimes be associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and can settle in particularly once the excitement of holiday time has passed.

If you have a parent or someone close to you living alone in a harsh climate and spending a lot of time indoors this winter, here are some warning signs to look for:

  • Lack of interest in customary activities, like their favorite TV show or daily crossword
  • Loss of energy
  • Low appetite or drastic change in eating habits
  • Irritability
  • Lack of sleep, or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in personal hygiene or appearance

If any of these signs appear and persist for more than a few weeks, take mom to the doctor to be evaluated. There are excellent options for medications to treat seasonal depression, as well as non-pharmaceutical options like light boxes and sunlight therapy. Her doctor may even look into Vitamin D supplements to alleviate symptoms until better weather returns.

What can you do to prevent SAD symptoms from taking hold in the first place? Here are some ideas to help mom or dad avoid the winter blues:

  • Stay connected: Check in with Dad every day or two. If you can’t make it there in person, connect through phone or Face Time, and don’t be shy about asking a neighbor or church community member to stop in for a wellness check.
  • Get Dad moving: Even the most basic exercise offers significant mental health benefits. Weather permitting, get Dad outside for a walk in the sun – maybe to a local park or town square. If conditions are too treacherous, take him for a walk around the mall. There are also often drop-in classes at local senior centers and libraries – definitely worth looking into online.
  • Plan a simple outing: A change of scenery, even for an hour or two, goes a long way in breaking up the monotony of a long dark winter day. Take Dad to the library to pick out a movie, or to the bookstore for a browse and some people watching.
  • Install a bird feeder: While having a pet can provide seniors companionship and comfort, it’s not always possible in certain living situations. Having a bird feeder outside mom’s window can be a wonderful way to bring the outdoors in, provide a different kind of companionship and entertainment to the day, and give mom a sense of purpose. Bird watching is also a great learning opportunity for seniors at a time when it’s so important to keep their brains active!
  • Keep Mom eating healthy: Vitamin D rich foods like salmon, eggs, and fortified cereals are important dietary staples in the fight against the winter blues, along with overall good nutrition. Make sure Mom’s house is stocked with nutrient-rich foods that are easy to prepare, along with protein-rich snacks like hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and yogurt. If food prep is an issue, look into supplementary meal delivery programs like Silver Cuisine or Magic Kitchen.

For more great ideas on how to beat the winter blues, head to Senior Living Magazine.