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Winter SADness

Everyone has been sad. It happens, and it’s as much a part of life as happiness is. But beware. There’s a big difference between being “just” sad, and suffering from SAD, the seasonal affective disorder. We’ve previously talked about winter safety measures for you and your senior loved one, but I never once mentioned this less known but equally risky condition. I’ll make up for it now by introducing you to the issue and teaching you about the symptoms and precautions.

What is SAD?

“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur, but are much less common than winter episodes of SAD.” — National Institute of Mental Health

Risk factors for SAD include a family history of mental diseases or suffering from depression or bipolar disorder combined with the lack of daylight or feelings of loneliness during the holiday season. The most endangered groups are women of the younger adult age, but SAD occurs in people of all ages.

Why are elderly people at risk?

Especially long-term care residents (but not exclusively) may experience a heavy mood swing due to the weather change and disruption of the body rhythms. Furthermore, elderly people with restricted mobility, people who have recently lost a loved friend or a family member or patients suffering from dementia may be very sensitive to these changes. If you start observing some of the changes listed below, it may be best to consult a psychologist.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

SAD is not a disorder itself, but rather a sub-type of major depression, and as such it is not to be taken lightly. The symptoms are many, but the manifestations don’t always necessarily indicate seasonal affective disorder. However, if several symptoms occur, be cautious and consult a specialist. Here’s a list of what to watch out for, by NIMH:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

Symptoms of the Winter Pattern of SAD include:

  • Having low energy
  • Hypersomnia
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)

How to help?

  1. Prevention. Start with dietary supplements including vitamin D. Always consult your doctor before you start taking any pills, even if they’re just vitamins. Other methods of prevention are frequent short walks outside in the daylight, light exercise, enriching your diet (you may find some inspiration in my post on nutrition during the winter months)
  2. See a specialist. If you think that you or your patient or relative may be suffering from SAD, don’t leave it be. The first thing to do is to see your doctor. He will examine the nature of the condition, and the treatment goes from there.
  3. Light therapy. You can purchase a light box that radiates rays of light similar to those coming from natural sunlight. When supervised and regulated according to individual needs, it can be beneficial for symptomatic people by exposing their preceptors to a high intensity light, making the body “forget” the actual dark weather.

The best help and prevention, however, is to be informed about the issue, and keep an eye on your loved ones’ mental state, especially during the winter months.