Seniors and S.A.D.

Senior Care

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression “related to changes in seasons” that most commonly affects those who suffer from it during the winter months, due to a change in sunlight exposure. SAD is differentiated from the “winter blues” experienced by those who live in cold climates with short winter days by the fact that it causes more severe symptoms that impact everyday life, like feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and an inability to focus . 

In this post, we’ll outline the symptoms of SAD, so that you can look out for these symptoms in your senior loved ones. We’ll also discuss some risk factors that can make seniors more susceptible to seasonal depression, but remember – since SAD is caused by environmental changes that affect brain chemistry, anyone can develop symptoms. Finally, we’ll outline treatment options and the best ways to help your senior loved one manage depression in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

What are the symptoms of SAD?

One of the most common symptoms of SAD is a sense of depression/despair which is present during most hours of the day, and lasts longer than two weeks. 

Other symptoms, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health , include:

  • Agitation and/or irritability

  • Fatigue

  • Trouble concentrating 

  • Frequent bouts of crying

  • Sleeping more or less (for SAD that presents in the winter months, oversleeping is common)

  • Changes in appetite and/or weight (those who have symptoms of SAD in the winter may experience cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain in particular)

  • Losing interest in things that previously provided joy or entertainment

These are also symptoms of depression, but for those who experience SAD, they emerge at the outset of a season and dissipate at its end. Symptoms tend to recur year after year in the same season, rather than remaining throughout the year at the same acute level. 

Are seniors at risk for SAD?

According to the Cleveland Clinic , younger adults have a greater risk of experiencing the symptoms of SAD. But SAD isn’t exclusively experienced by younger adults: it can affect anyone, regardless of age. Other risk factors for SAD that might affect seniors include existing mental health conditions (like anxiety or depression), living far from the equator, and/or a family history of depression . 

Existing stresses or feelings of loneliness and isolation, even if these feelings have not been diagnosed as ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression,’ can also increase the risk of developing SAD at any age. After facing the COVID-19 pandemic for a year now, these feelings are not at all uncommon: at least 50% of Canadians and 40% of Americans have struggled with mental health concerns during the pandemic. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the social and physical distancing needed to combat the spread of COVID-19 “can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.” And it’s worth remembering that loneliness and isolation were identified as a trend and a cause for concern in senior health even before the pandemic. 

Seniors can also be affected by medical conditions that can cause depression, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, chronic pain, or a history of stroke. Seniors who are prone to the symptoms of depression for medical reasons may be more likely to develop SAD. 

How can SAD be treated in seniors?

Light Therapy

Scientists believe that there are two key ways reduced sunlight affects our brains and causes the symptoms of SAD: by disturbing our biological clocks and therefore affecting “sleep-wake patterns,” and by interfering with the function of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin while simultaneously increasing the hormone melatonin . Because of this, a “first line” and common treatment for SAD is phototherapy, which involves using a light/lamp to mimic sunlight indoors. 

Harvard Health offers some guidelines for choosing a light therapy lamp, and also cautions that people with bipolar disorder or conditions that can affect the eyes (like diabetes) should discuss light therapy with their doctor before trying it. Similarly, the Mayo Clinic suggests that anyone who is interested in phototherapy should speak with a physician before purchasing a light/lamp. If your senior loved one is experiencing symptoms of SAD, it’s also important to consult with their doctor to confirm that their symptoms aren’t indicative of any other conditions, and to discuss all potential treatments, including phototherapy. 

Prescription Medication Psychotherapy

Other treatments for SAD include those used to treat all forms of depression: medication and therapy. Antidepressants help regulate the function of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals. Seniors should choose antidepressants carefully in consultation with their doctors, since antidepressant medications can interact with other drugs . 

Seniors may also find that taking a vitamin D supplement alleviates some symptoms of SAD, since vitamin D deficiency resulting from reduced sunlight can affect serotonin levels . As with all medications and supplements, seniors should consult their physicians to be sure vitamin D is right for them. 

Therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is another commonly recommended treatment for many forms of depression , including SAD. CBT focuses on creating positive changes in thinking patterns, mindset, and behavioural patterns in order to help ease mental stresses. If you have a senior loved one suffering from the symptoms of SAD but who is not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, virtual or telephone therapy sessions are a useful way to get treatment from home. 

Coping with Mindfulness and Kindness

Lastly, SAD symptoms can also be mitigated by engaging in “mind-body techniques.” Examples of mind-body techniques include meditation and/or breathwork, yoga practices, gentle exercise, and music or art therapy. It’s helpful to get outside when possible, and to eat healthy, balanced meals. 

And right now, it’s also important to focus on ways to combat the mental stresses the pandemic has created. If your senior loved one has Seasonal Affective Disorder, make sure to connect with them often, and think about other ways they might find social connections. It may also be beneficial to relieve boredom and/or monotony in their day-to-day lives by finding new things for them to do (listening to audiobooks, doing puzzles, video chatting with grandchildren, going for short walks, or doing chair exercises ) and by giving them things to look forward to, like family phone calls once a week, the delivery of home-cooked meals, or crafts from grandkids arriving in the mail. 

The cold winter months can be isolating at the best of times, so this year, more than ever, let’s look out for one another and especially for our senior loved ones by checking in frequently and making sure that they’re getting the appropriate treatments if they’re experiencing the symptoms of SAD.