It’s known as “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many seniors, the holiday season brings sadness and depression. Seniors can experience this Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for physical reasons, such as shorter days, colder weather, and physical impairments that keep them from participating in holiday activities. Emotional reasons like loneliness and missing deceased loved ones can also trigger seasonal depression.
SAD, also known as the winter blues or holiday blues during this time of the year, is considered by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a “specifier for a recurrent major depressive disorder… that occurs only during a specific time of year and fully remits thereafter.” Even those with normal mental health can experience this seasonal depression during certain times of the year. It is now a widely recognized disorder among experts, and is thought to affect as many as 9 percent of adults in some areas of the country.
“The holidays are a time of tradition and the gathering of family and friends for many people,” said social worker Mary Stehle. “For some seniors, this can be a time that reminds them of losses…the loss of loved ones, the loss of a home, the loss of good health.”
The following are some signs that a senior may be suffering from depression or SAD:
* Persistent sadness
* Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
* Decreased socialization
* Loss of interest in usual activities
* Excessive worrying
* Feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless
* Changes in appetite
* Crying spells
* Trouble focusing, remembering or making decisions
How to Beat the Holiday Blues
First of all, it will be helpful for seniors to admit that they are having a hard time, and may need an ear to listen to them. Encourage your loved one to tell you how they are feeling. “Acknowledging that might allow them to feel okay about sharing some of the thoughts on their mind, which could make them feel better,” Stehle said.
Staying busy and active will also help combat SAD. Be sure to include your elderly loved ones in family activities, like gift shopping, baking cookies, decorating the tree, or taking a walk to see Christmas lights. Simple mental and physical exercise can help seniors improve their mental health and avoid depression. Many seniors grieve for a lost spouse during the holiday season. Encourage them to share stories, photos, and memories, rather than dwell on their absence. Suppressing any memories and thoughts of them will often worsen any depression. “Take the time to listen to your loved one,” said Stehle. “They may need to reminisce about their childhood or past holiday traditions.”
Loneliness and isolation can be huge factors in causing holiday depression in seniors. If your loved one lives alone, or in an assisted living community, be sure they can share the holiday season with family or friends. Valentin Bragin, psychiatrist and author of Conquering Depression in the Golden Years, said seniors need to feel connected to others during the holidays. “The key message is do not stay home alone during the holidays,” Bragin said. “Stay active and look for places where people celebrate the holidays together.”
SAD is only temporary; however, depression can easily worsen when untreated. If symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks, it may be time to find help. Depression is not a normal part of aging, and healthcare professionals can recommend treatments like medication, therapy, exercise, and socialization. Seniors’ lives will inevitably change, but cherishing old memories and opening one’s mind to new ones will help keep the holiday blues at bay.
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.