Once the holidays have passed, many people soon find the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD) kicking in. A type of depression that is usually connected to lack of sunlight in the winter, SAD can be especially dangerous for seniors who are already struggling with loneliness.
Dr. Rita Gray, Director of Clinical Training and a Licensed Psychologist for the Will County Health Department, says it is very true that the further one lives from the equator, the more someone can be affected by SAD due to the lack of sunlight in their daily lives. “It comes down to a lack of Vitamin D in the body,” Dr. Gray explained. “Vitamin D is the ‘sun vitamin.’ Some people think Vitamin C is because they envision oranges growing in the sun, but Vitamin D is the key.”
SAD can certainly affect anyone. But when it comes to how much SAD can affect seniors, Barry Kolanowski, Executive Director of the Will County Senior Services Center, says a “free fall of emotions” often occurs right after the holidays when seniors find themselves reflecting on holiday visits that may have seemed rather unfulfilling.
“Perhaps they were part of a large family gathering but felt a little out of place or felt guilty about needing transportation,” Kolanowski explained. “Now they’re alone again, and perhaps going through that first holiday season without their spouse.”
Dr. Gray agrees. “Seniors are definitely vulnerable to SAD due to issues like declining health, or maybe what they feel is a decreasing role in life.”
And while it is often said that citizens should “check on their elderly neighbors and relatives during the winter months, Dr. Gray and Kolanowski both point out that a simple checklist may not do the job. “You need to go past the physical needs like eating enough and having heat in their homes,” Dr. Gray explained. “The most important thing is often ‘do they have enough companionship?’”
Kolanowski says being specific is definitely the key. “Don’t just ask ‘what can I do to help?’ Instead, BE HELPFUL. Call and say you are coming by to drop off some magazines. Or say, ‘I’m going to the grocery store and I know you like mandarin oranges. I will bring you some.’”
Kolanowksi added that helping seniors feel a connection to others is definitely important. “There is something about engaging with someone and the positive feeling it can give a senior who is living alone. Just nice simple conversation. As little as 15 minutes can have a great physiological benefit on a person’s immune system.”
This, both Kolanowski and Dr. Gray agreed, is also where just taking someone somewhere can make the difference. “These days,” Kolanowski pointed out, “we seem to outlive our ability to drive by about ten years. So just bringing someone to a bingo or line dancing event, even if they just watch, gets them outside and gets them moving.”
Dr. Gray recalled experiences dealing with her elderly mother. “She would be so mad at me if I insisted we go somewhere, but then she’d be energized and she’d say, ‘I’m so glad you made me get out of that house.’ That energy usually makes them sleep better and eat better as well.”
What are the signs your loved one might have SAD? Dr. Gray says common signs can include poor hygiene, not keeping the house cleaned up, or poor eating and sleeping habits. A visit to a doctor can determine if they need more or less food or sleep time. “Also,” Dr. Gray added, “dehydration can be a sneaky danger in the winter because we have less desire to drink water. It’s good to start with a modest goal like three or four glasses a day and work your way up.”
It is recommended that even when the sun is not out, anyone fighting SAD should spend 20 minutes a day outdoors. And despite the Eagles’ song lyric of “it’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day,” beautiful sunny days do happen in the winter and should be taken advantage of.
What about the often talked about “light boxes” that are recommended by some psychiatrists and various professionals in the health care field? Dr. Gray owns one and believes in them. “The light does affect the retina and activate hormones in the body,” she explained. However, you should check with your doctor before using one, especially if you have conditions such as glaucoma or diabetic eye damage. They can be purchased at many department or specialty stores.
But when it comes to checking on the elderly and helping them stay engaged with people for any reason, Kolanowski speaks from experience. “About ten years ago my mom committed suicide, and she left a note saying she just didn’t see much of a future. She had a bad back, was scared of surgery, and was hurting. I talk about her a lot. It just shows how you never know, and should always keep trying to help the elderly and add to their lives.”
For more on the Will County Senior Services Center, go to http://willcountyseniors.org/
. For more on Will County Health Department programs, please visit willcountyhealth.org
For more on Seasonal Affective Disorder, you can go to https://seniorsandhealth.com/