The winter holiday season is a mixed blessing. It is a time to connect with family and celebrate all that we are thankful for, but it can also be a time of loss and isolation for many. Older adults are particularly vulnerable.
"During the winter holiday season I see an increase in patients who just feel down," says Eran Metzger, M.D., Medical Director, Psychiatry at Hebrew SeniorLife. "Symptoms worsen in patients with serious mood disorders or depression, and the cause is both biological and psychosocial."
At this time of year the days get shorter and the air colder. This means less exposure to sunlight, which can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Recognized as a distinct biological phenomenon, changes in seasons can bring on a depressive state.
For many seniors, the season reminds them of losses they have suffered. An empty seat at the holiday table where a loved-one once sat is understandably a painful experience. As one gets older, loss of friends and loved-ones multiplies.
Older adults also suffer a sense that their independence is challenged by the elements and their physical capacity. When daylight diminishes and the roads become icy, moving about outdoors, including driving, becomes restricted. This reminds adults as they age that their lives are changing and are not what they used to be. This can cause stress and depression.
The holidays can also trigger stress - both good and bad. A whirlwind of engagements, no matter how festive, can be tiring, especially for older adults.
At the same time, the media bombards us with messages that say we should be happy and filled with joy at precisely the same time when many older adults feel exactly the opposite. They may be feeling isolated, dependant on others, or at worse, irrelevant.
It’s easy to see how the season itself can bring on the "holiday blues."
While some may turn to alcohol to relieve their "blues," Dr. Metzger cautions that alcohol is a double-edged sword when it comes to treating depression. Although it may seem to bring temporary relief, it is actually a central nervous system depressant and a diuretic. Alcohol use affects balance, putting seniors at risk for falls, and it disrupts sleep, which has a number of health consequences. And finally, many seniors take medications that can have serious interactions with alcohol.
If the blues get to the point where you feel like you just can’t function, it’s time to contact your health-care provider. Often SAD patients respond well to a light box that mimics exposure to the sun. If necessary, anti-depression medications along with talk therapy are effective as a treatment for symptoms.
There are a number of steps you can take to cope with the "holiday blues."
- Manage your time. Reduce stress by setting priorities and eliminating unnecessary tasks.
- Practice relaxation exercises, including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization and meditation.
- Exercise regularly and eat a healthful diet.
- Think positively rather than focusing on negative thoughts and feelings.
- Learn to be a good communicator so you can clearly express your feelings, wants and needs.
- Learn to say no –without feeling guilty about it.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
- Develop a sense of humor so you can laugh at the ironies of the world around you.