The holidays are supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year”. But according to Mental Health America, the number of Americans age 65 and older suffering from some form of depression spikes each year during the holidays.
There are many reasons seniors may not view the holidays as a time of joyous celebration. For some elderly individuals, the holidays may serve as reminders of friends or spouses who have passed away, their distance away from loved ones, infrequency of relatives’ visits (particularly if they are in an assisted living facility) or the inability to take part in certain holiday events. Feelings of alienation and loneliness take root, often presenting with traditional symptoms of depression in the months that follow.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (really – we didn’t make that up), is a defined as a type of depression that is characterized by a seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting around 4–5 months out of the year. Symptoms are similar to other forms of depression:
- Changes in mood
- Increased tiredness
- Lost interest in prior hobbies or social activities
- Focus on sadness and hopelessness
- Change in appetite and weight
- Frequent crying
- Restlessness or lack of concentration
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Unexplained pain
- Slow speech
- Memory issues
- Suicidal thoughts
- Alcoholism and drug abuse
Getting through the symptoms of depression can be even harder on an older individual who lives alone.
Complications of Seasonal Affective Disorder for Seniors
As people age, significant life changes occur which can impact seniors’ mental health. Loss of loved one, poor diet, change in routine, loneliness and fear are some of the frequent causes of depression, but it can also result from medical complications such as chronic pain, loss of memory, thyroid disorders, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis, among others. These medical conditions can affect the mental health of an aged person either directly or through a psychological reaction to the situation.
SAD, which can affect people of any age, may either go unnoticed by a family caring for an individual with any of the above medical conditions, or, on the other hand, it may mask a more serious underlying emerging condition.
Depression vs. Dementia
Many families of aging individuals misunderstand the difference between depression and dementia, largely because the two conditions present with similar symptoms. In medical terms, depression is a state of rapid mental decline. A depressed individual is very much aware of their environment, date, and time. However, their motor skills can slack up and they may have impaired memory and concentration.
Dementia, on the other hand, is a slow mental decline accompanied by confusion. The patient may not recognize familiar faces and places. Loss of memory is not really a symptom of dementia. But the most impaired functions are motor skills, speech, and writing skills.
Only a physical exam by a qualified practitioner can determine whether a patient is suffering from depression or dementia and recommend an appropriate course of treatment and care for each. Families who pick up on some of the symptoms these two impairments have in common are urged to consult with the aging individual’s physician to make sure they can respond appropriately.
Ways to Help a Loved One Feel Thought of During the Holidays
It’s common for older people to deny their mental illnesses or any psychological issues they might be undergoing, either as a cultural artifact from a time when mental illness carried more stigma, or simply because they prefer not to admit their own deterioration. This makes it more difficult for their families and caregivers to know what is going on. Nonetheless, there are several ways to make an aging parent rediscover the magic of the holiday season, and make them feel both purposeful and loved:
Making Gifts: There are many fun gifts that can be created by neighbors or grandchildren. Pinterest offers some easy crafts and interesting projects that make great gifts older adults. The gifts will show how much your senior is loved and not forgotten.
Baking Holiday Cookies: Cookies are perfect goodies to give to elderly neighbors and friends. Everyone bakes cookies differently, but we do recommend choosing healthier ingredients for older recipients.
Listening to the Aged: Though they may seem quiet, older friends and relatives could almost always use a good ear. This encourages them to engage in dialogue and articulate their concerns. Like for the rest of us, a bit of acknowledgement and understanding can make an aging individual feel significantly better.
How a Senior Can Cope with Holiday Depression
It can be extremely difficult for an elderly individual dealing with depression to motivate themselves every day – they are dealing with both the physical limitations of an aging body and the crippling demotivation of depressive symptoms. In severe cases, they might feel worthless and even contemplate suicide. If you are concerned about this with regard to yourself or anyone you know, please call 988 immediately.
That said, there are several activities that can help put off such thoughts:
Going to a Place of Worship: Religious places are filled with not only kindhearted professional staff capable of providing pastoral care, but also tend to host holiday-related activities during the festive seasons. Churches, for instance, need volunteers to make Christmas decorations. December is also a perfect time to join Jewish members celebrating Hanukkah in the temple.
Exercising: While most elderly are physically unable to do certain workouts, simple exercises like walking in the neighborhood can help. With time, more complicated exercises may become more accessible and the individual may feel a sense of accomplishment. This activity is even more enjoyable when an elder is accompanied by a family member or friend.
Shopping: Shopping during the festive season can be an exciting way to take one’s mind off of troubles. It can be time-consuming but having a companion makes things easier. Shopping need not be complicated; it can be as simple as buying groceries from the new shopping mall in town.
Simple Self-Treats: There are simple ways a senior can treat themselves such as getting a new haircut, a manicure or a pedicure (even for older men!). Call a local spa to see if they offer massage treatments specialized for seniors.
Crafting: Engrossing one’s self in a DIY project is a wonderful way to feel productive. A wealth of ideas is available online or through retailers related to any season or occasion.
Relearn Learning: Many seniors find it rewarding and invigorating to enroll in a course or series of lectures at a local college. Many universities welcome late-in-life learners into regular classes or have special courses geared toward their interests. A set schedule for getting out of the house can have secondary benefits, as well.
Participating in a Good Cause: It can be fun and humbling to contribute one’s time and energy to a good cause. Visiting others, helping at a food kitchen and other forms of giving back that do not pose danger to the well-being of the elderly individual can provide a sense of purpose. These activities can also offer new perspective of appreciation for what an individual does have in their lives.
Too many depressed seniors do not recognize or admit their state of depression, which prevents them from seeking the necessary help. Family and friends can help their aging loved ones recognize the symptoms and take steps to mitigate them. Please take a moment this holiday season to be on particular lookout for any symptoms of SAD or generalized depression.
If you notice signs of potential depression and the individual’s situation does not seem to improve with time, seek qualified medical advice. It is imperative to give all the support that the senior person deserves so they can manage depression. If you are unable to monitor your loved one’s mental health due to distance, please consider the benefits of having a professional home health aide spend a few hours a day with the elderly individual.
Human interaction, regular communication and engaged stimulation can do wonders for an aged individual dealing with depression. A home care aide can also help with light housekeeping, transportation, medication reminders and basic activities of daily living that tend to get neglected when someone is suffering from depression. More than anything else, though, the companionship provided by a home caregiver, including the ability to help the senior citizen get around to some of the activities their community has to offer, can be the difference between continued decline into depression and slowly building back vivacity and energy.
If your loved one lives in Palm Beach or Broward Country and could benefit from companion care services, please reach out to one of our care specialists. Our dedicated and experienced team can help you determine the level and type of care that would be most beneficial for your aging relative to help them avoid seasonal or long-term depression.