Short days, cold nights, gloomy weather; these hallmarks of winter lead the best of us to curtail social activities and hibernate. For elders who may have difficulty with mobility and isolation, the winter months might have a more pronounced impact, leading to the winter blues.
The winter blues, also known as seasonal affective disorder, affects people with normal mental health. It is a serious mood change that occurs when the seasons change. Look for these symptoms in elderly relatives or friends: sleeping more, changes in activity level and not wanting to engage in regular activities, changes in appetite — such as eating too little or over eating — and reports of feelings of depression.
How can you tell if someone has a seasonal disorder or an ongoing depressive disorder? It usually goes away when the weather clears up, but a true depressive disorder will be ongoing and recurrent. Depression remains a serious problem in older adults and increases as their functional level becomes more limited with the presence of other illnesses. Seniors are one of the most at-risk groups for suicide, accounting for 16 percent of all suicides, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Don’t wait for the weather to clear to determine if your relative or friend has the “winter blues” or ongoing depression. Here’s how you can help.
Exercise: Encourage your senior friend or loved one to exercise regularly. Exercise releases brain chemicals that improve mood and diminish the winter blues. Alexandria’s recreation centers have programs geared to seniors.
Improve diet: Feeling down can lead to loss of interest in food or overeating. Diet can improve a person’s overall feeling of well-being. Choose foods with complex carbohydrates — such as wheat bread, vegetables and brown rice — and drink plenty of water. If your friend or loved one has difficulty preparing meals, they may wish to consider Meals on Wheels.
Improve social network: Family members have their own busy schedules, often making it difficult to interact with their elderly relatives. As seniors age, their social network diminishes with illnesses and deaths. Seniors can expand their network by joining one of the three Alexandria senior centers offering lunch, exercise activities, trips and social interaction
Sunight therapy: One of the most common reasons for seasonal affective disorder is lack of sunlight. If going outside every day is not possible, then consider light therapy. A device called a heliostat reflects direct sunlight into the windows of a home by a computer-controlled mirror device. You also can purchase a light box device which emits much brighter light than a customary incandescent lamp.
Medication: It is a good idea to discuss symptoms with your doctor. There may be other causes of the symptoms and he/she may suggest additional therapies such as an anti-depression regimen.
To learn about all of the city programs, contact the city’s division of aging and adult services at 703-746-5999×5 or on the web at www.alexandriava.gov/aging.
The writer is supervisor of Adult Services in the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services.