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The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote approximately 1,800 poems in her 56 years of life. But, interestingly, she was far less prolific during the winter months, leading scholars to believe she suffered from seasonal affective disorder (aptly called SAD).
While the term wasn’t known in Emily’s day (it was coined in 1984 by academics at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda), it is a “real” mood disorder suffered by thousands each year as the days stretch on in the cold and dark.
The height of SAD is said to be in January and February, right about where we are now. This is also the time of year many people are seeking getaways to temperate climates. No wonder images of blue water, bright sunshine and warm sand make us all but salivate.
Seniors are more likely to suffer from seasonal depression than other populations, primarily because they struggle with other mitigating factors. Decreased mobility, diminished health, treacherous weather and the risk of falling keep many seniors inside, exacerbating the effects of seasonal depression and feelings of isolation. What’s more, women and those who live in northern areas are more prone to SAD. Indeed, Miss Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, a city not known for its balmy weather.
It’s important to note, however, that while depression is common among the elderly, particularly the seasonal kind, it is not a normal part of aging. Studies have revealed that most older adults feel satisfied with their lives and less vulnerable to clinical depression than other age groups. What is normal among seniors is the aforementioned decline in ambulatory ability, coupled with a rise in chronic physical and cognitive issues.
But, as sure as the days will grow longer and the mercury will rise, there are ways to alleviate seasonal depression not only among seniors, but all people affected by its gloomy forecast. Remember, too, that SAD is a temporary affliction and time really does fly, especially as we grow older.
Light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the figurative promise of spring and summer, light literally helps alleviate seasonal depression. On winter days when the sun it out, opening the blinds to let in the rays or spending even a short time outside, if possible, can be helpful. In the absence of natural sunlight, light therapy devices expose us to certain wavelengths of bright, full-spectrum light, boosting vitamin D, stimulating “happy hormones,” and stabilizing circadian rhythms.
Diet and exercise. Proper nutrition and regular exercise can be hard to come by for many seniors. Yet, good foods and a fitness routine are essential to mental health and combating the symptoms of depression. Older people who have others to look out for them on a regular basis, offering them help with meals and ways to engage in physical activity, fare much better in the winter months.
Social activity. Nothing beats a blah cold day like a good friend or two with whom to chat, dine or engage in fun social activities. Essential feelings of purpose, belonging, security, and self-esteem blossom when people connect with others in positive, meaningful ways. Seniors with opportunities to make such connections are far less prone to depression, any time of year.
Stress reduction. Older people who live on their own face several challenges, including overwhelming household responsibilities and the bleak mid-winter impositions of snow and ice. Stress is depression’s evil twin; the less worry we have, the brighter the outlook – even on the coldest, grayest day.
At Friendship Village, residents can weather a long winter armed with ample antidotes to SAD.
All residents need do is enjoy themselves and watch the winter blues turn bright as the sun!