Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder in Seniors

Category: Alzheimer's | Assisted Living

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Unlike feelings of sadness all Americans face, a SAD episode is chronic, long-term, and can have lasting effects on an individual’s life.

An older woman experiencing a SAD episode with the change of seasons.

If you have an elderly loved one who you think is experiencing feelings associated with SAD, you have options. Whether they live at home with you or reside in a nursing home, assisted, or skilled nursing facility, there are resources you can turn to help them get the care they need. Let’s take a closer look at what you should know about seasonal affective disorder in seniors.

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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder and How Does It Affect Seniors?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depressive episode that affects individuals experiencing mood and emotional regulation during the changing of the seasons. Symptoms associated with SAD generally occur during the winter months when individuals are no longer exposed to factors including:

  • Regular sunshine
  • Warm temperatures
  • Regular outdoor activities
  • Physical activities

Seasonal affective disorder can have a significant impact on individuals who experience it, especially among older adults and senior citizens who may be limited in their mobility or lifestyle options.

The inability of individuals to regulate their mood or sudden and chronic feelings of hopelessness can significantly impact their day-to-day activities.

What Are Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder in Older Adults?

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder vary among different ages but are similar across the board. Still, they can have a unique impact on adults and senior citizens.

Some of the common symptoms seniors living with a seasonal affective disorder will face include the following:

  • Unwavering sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness or despair
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities, even if they do not engage in regular outdoor activities
  • Difficulty going to bed and staying asleep
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased feelings of lethargy, the desire to sleep for extended periods of time

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder in Seniors?

As with all other age groups, there are similar causes that can trigger an episode associated with a seasonal affective disorder.

Causes generally include environmental factors, such as shorter days, the loss of sunlight, and the loss of warmer temperatures.

These environmental factors can impact the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that manages and regulates melatonin and serotonin production. Lack of vitamin D, which all Americans absorb naturally through sunlight, is also a big contributing cause of seasonal affective disorder.

Additionally, shorter days can disrupt an individual’s normal sleep cycle, which can then impact their mood changes and how they feel regularly.

Finally, people who experience seasonal affective disorder will also experience a drop in their serotonin levels. Serotonin increases when an individual is active or on the move — an activity that generally happens more during the warmer months than during the winter months.

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosed in Seniors?

A primary healthcare provider will generally examine seniors for seasonal affective disorder. The diagnosis may come after a physical exam and a series of questions that assess an individual’s overall mental health and well-being.

At times, a diagnosis of a seasonal affective disorder may also be followed by another mental health diagnosis, such as depression. In these cases, the diagnosis may be linked to other underlying factors that may not be immediately apparent.

How Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Differ From Other Forms of Depression in Seniors?

Seasonal affective disorder is a specific diagnosis on its own but can be accompanied by another form of depression, such as psychotic depression or postmenopausal depression.

In addition to depression, seasonal affective disorder can be accompanied by other mental health challenges, including panic disorders, anxiety, and mood disorders.

Treatments for Seniors Suffering From Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are a variety of treatment options seniors can turn to if they are suffering from seasonal affective disorder. One treatment option may work for some individuals, while others might require a combination. Comment treatment options include:

Light Therapy

Also known as phototherapy, this treatment involves an individual using a light box that mimics the natural sun. It can be used for 20 to 30 minutes a day and can help individuals regulate their circadian rhythm, helping to boost their overall mood.

Lifestyle Changes

For some individuals, making intentional lifestyle changes can help alleviate feelings associated with SAD. This may include changing your dietary needs, getting more sleep, or opening a gym membership.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT involves engaging in therapy with a licensed counselor who understands how to treat the symptoms of SAD. A therapist can help you identify what might trigger an episode and how to navigate through it.

Vitamin D and Medication

For some individuals, vitamin D supplements used alone or in conjunction with antidepressants can help alleviate the overall feelings associated with SAD. Speak with your primary care physician to determine whether or not this may be an option for you.

How Can I Help an Older Family Member With Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you have a loved one experience SAD, you can help. Let them know they have a loved one by their side. Be open and vulnerable, and encourage them to confide their feelings to you.

Don’t Be Critical

When helping seniors navigate their seasonal affective disorder, always be encouraging and avoid being critical. Many people mistake a SAD diagnosis for sadness, but the two are very distinct experiences. Sadness is temporary and short-lived, whereas depression is chronic, long-term, and debilitating.

Don’t Dismiss Their Feelings About the Weather

Weather is a major contributing factor for individuals experiencing an episode of SAD. Be cognizant when your loved one speaks about the weather and encourage the conversation to be positive and uplifting rather than negative.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask for Help

If you’re not sure how to help the senior or adult in your life who is struggling with a SAD, reach out to experienced professionals who can help. Whether your loved one lives at home or is in a nursing facility or assisted living facility, speak up about your concerns for their well-being. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and seasonal affective disorder tips you can implement in their life.

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Mood Disorder. (2024).

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). (2024).

Serotonin. (2024).