Although the holidays are supposed to be a time of goodwill and cheer, many people deal with feelings of unhappiness and isolation during the holidays, and seniors may have an especially difficult time. Seniors often face the loss of loved ones, decreased mobility and energy, feelings of lost opportunities and independence, and feelings of sadness that often come with the memories of previous holidays.
It’s very common for seniors to deal with feelings of sadness, and the winter holiday season, as well as the colder, darker months that come with this type of year, can make this even worse. While feeling blue can be normal during the holidays, depression isn’t normal. It’s important to look for signs your loved one is dealing with depression, and you can take some measures to help seniors cope with depression during the holiday season.
Signs Your Love One Could Be Depressed
There’s a big difference between having the holiday blues and going through depression, so caregivers and family members need to know the signs of depression. Some red flags that may indicate depression in seniors include:
- Lack of energy and motivation
- Feelings of despair or sadness
- Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- Slowed speech and movement
- Memory problems
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Fixation on death
- Loss of self-worth (worrying about being worthless or being a burden to others)
- Neglecting routine personal care, such as personal hygiene, forgetting to take medications, or skipping meals
- Loss of interest in hobbies or socializing
- Irritable mood
- Sleep disturbances, such as oversleeping, daytime sleepiness, problems falling or staying asleep
- Excessive fatigue
- Feelings of anxiety
While sadness and depression often seem to go together, depressed seniors often note that they don’t feel sad. Instead they often deal with physical problems, lack of energy, and reduced motivation. It’s very common for physical complaints, such as worsening headaches and arthritis pain, to be the main symptoms of depression in seniors.
Causes of Depression in Seniors During the Holidays
As your loved ones age, they face big life changes that can increase their risk of developing depression, and the holiday season can often make these things worse. Some of the potential causes of depression in older adults during the winter holidays can include:
- Recent Losses
- Health Problems
- Isolation and Loneliness
- Reduced Sense of Purpose
- Seasonal Affective Disorder
The loss of a spouse, death of family members or friends, and the loss of pets can all lead to depression during the holidays. Memories of traditions in the past can make it difficult to enjoy the special days with family and friends. Losses can seem more overwhelming during the holidays, and while there’s a definitely difference between grief and depression, dealing with loss can lead to depression during this time.
Disability and illness, cognitive decline, and chronic pain can all be tough on the mind, and health problems have the potential to lead to depression. When health issues interfere with holiday plans, it can be even more difficult for seniors to deal with, leaving them dealing with depression.
Many seniors deal with isolation and loneliness, and during the holidays, that can become even more pronounced. Relocations, decreased mobility, and losses can all result in increased loneliness, and this often leads to depression during the holiday season.
Retirement and physical limitations can often leave seniors feeling like they don’t have a sense of purpose or they may feel like they have lost their identity, which can lead to depression. In the past, they may have had a big part in holiday festivities, and being unable to cook, bake, and shop like they did in the past can increase the risk of depression this time of year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes called winter depression, is now considered a major depressive disorder. When the seasons change, serious mood changes can occur, resulting in depression. It’s particularly common in Northern climates that have dreary, cold, dark days. Since seniors are often intolerant to cold and less mobile, they often have a higher risk of developing SAD, and aging women have an even higher risk.
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Medical Conditions Can Cause Depression
Certain medical conditions can also result in depression, both directly and as a psychological reaction to illness. Any type of chronic medical problem, particularly those that are life-threatening, disabling, or painful, can result in depression or make depression worse. Some medical conditions that may cause depression in seniors include:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Thyroid disorders
- Multiple sclerosis
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
Tips for Helping Seniors Cope with Depression During the Holidays
When seniors are dealing with depression during the holidays, family members, friends, and caregivers can reach out and help lift their spirits. You can help seniors cope with depression and feel loved and important during this magical season by using the following tips.
- Take Time to Listen
- Make Seniors Feel Important to Holiday Festivities
- Plan Special Holiday Events and Outings
- Get Them Involved in Holiday Decorating
- Find Time for Some Exercise Together
- Spend a Bit of Time in the Sun if Possible
- Do Some Baking Together for Others
Listening to seniors is one of the best way to help them cope with depression, since it gives them the chance to express their feelings. Whether they are dealing with new challenges or mourning a loss, an empathetic, honest conversation can help them process the emotions with which they’re dealing.
Seniors often feel like they are a burden or useless if they’re no longer able to fully participate in or contribute to the holiday festivities like they once did, and this can contribute to depression. Take time to make seniors feel like they are important to your holiday festivities and traditions. Get them as involved as possible to make them feel like they are contributing.
Plan some special holiday events and outings that seniors can get involved in to reduce the feelings of loneliness and social isolation during the holidays. Head out to a Christmas play or a holiday service at a local church if your loved one is religious. Enjoy a night driving around to see holiday light displays around your town. Take them along with you to a special holiday party.
Get seniors involved in holiday decorating, helping them add some festive holiday decorations to their room or around the home. Seniors often enjoy spending time reflecting on holiday memories while they go through cherished decorations, so take the time to ask about special holiday decorations and listen to their stories as you decorate together.
Find some time to exercise together, since exercise is one of the best ways to fight depression. While physical limitations may make this difficult, there are simple exercises that even those with limitations can do to get more activity in their life. With all the hustle and bustle of the season, it’s easy to let physical activity slide, but making sure seniors stay active can combat the seasonal depression they experience during the holidays.
Some time in the sunshine can be particularly helpful if seniors are dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Natural sunlight can reduce the symptoms of SAD and can boost vitamin D levels, which can also boost mood. Just make sure seniors bundle up well before heading outdoors, since they are more susceptible to hypothermia. Just 10-15 minutes of sunshine can make a huge difference.
Doing something for others can be powerful, and giving your loved one a chance to feel useful can also help. Work on some baking together for others. Bake cookies to give to neighbors, family members, or people in your community who are in need. It’s fun for seniors to pull out old recipes and work with you in the kitchen, and it can help reduce some of the symptoms of holiday depression.
Seeing a Medical Professional
While there are many things you can do to help a senior cope with depression during the holiday season, it is important to have your loved one seen by a medical professional if you think they are dealing with depression. In some cases, antidepressant medications or cognitive therapy may prove helpful to your loved one. Having some additional help with a loved one can also be helpful. Learn more about how companionship services, in-home care, and respite care can help both you and your loved one this holiday season.
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