The holiday season is often referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many, joy is hard to find. Depression in seniors is especially prominent around Thanksgiving and Christmas due to a variety of factors. Physical reasons, like shorter days, colder weather, and physical impairments that keep seniors from participating in holiday activities, and emotional reasons like loneliness, missing deceased loved ones, and wishing for happier holidays gone by. Even the expectation that one is supposed to be especially joyful this time of year can trigger sadness and depression.
“The holidays are a time of tradition and the gathering of family and friends for many people,” said social worker Mary Stehle. “For some seniors, this can be a time that reminds them of losses…the loss of loved ones, the loss of a home, the loss of good health.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, between one and five percent of seniors living at home suffer from major depression; the numbers rise to about 13 percent for those who need home health care or are living in an assisted living facility. Those who have chronic diseases are more prone to suffer from depression. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs only during a specific time of the year and remits thereafter. SAD, also called winter depression or holiday blues, is now recognized as a common disorder among older adults.
The following are some signs that a senior may be suffering from depression:
- Persistent sadness
- Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
- Decreased socialization
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Excessive worrying
- Feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless
- Changes in appetite
- Crying spells
- Trouble focusing, remembering or making decisions
How to Combat the Holiday Blues
While seniors who are suffering from depression may not want to talk about it and dampen the holiday mood, it’s helpful for them to acknowledge that they are going through a difficult time. “Acknowledging that might allow them to feel okay about sharing some of the thoughts on their mind, which could make them feel better,” Stehle said.
To help seniors fight the holiday blues, family members and friends can keep them busy by including them in all holiday activities. Attending local holiday events, gift shopping, and driving around to see the Christmas lights can help seniors get in a festive mood. Taking a walk or other simple exercises can also help seniors improve their mental health and avoid depression.
If an elderly person is depressed from missing a lost loved one, it is better to share old stories, photos, and favorite holiday memories shared with them instead of dwelling on the loss. Suppressing any memories and thoughts of them will often worsen any depression. Seniors may also be depressed because their lives are changing and they miss happier times. “Take the time to listen to your loved one,” said Stehle. “They may need to reminisce about their childhood or past holiday traditions.”
Isolation is another cause of holiday depression in seniors, especially those who live alone or in an assisted living or skilled nursing facility. Valentin Bragin, psychiatrist and author of Conquering Depression in the Golden Years, said seniors need to feel connected to others during the holidays. Assisted living facilities usually have special events, meals and entertainment for seniors. Those who live at home can spend the holidays with their family or friends. “The key message is do not stay home alone during the holidays,” Bragin said. “Stay active and look for places where people celebrate the holidays together.” Even if loved ones are far away, phone and video calls are a great way to feel connected.
No matter how much their lives have changed, seniors can always continue holiday traditions to combat depression. If there are certain dishes that Grandma always cooks for Thanksgiving, family members can help her make them when she is no longer able. Maybe Grandpa needs help hanging Christmas lights and trimming the tree. “The aging process often requires traditions to be altered and new traditions to be created,” Stehle said. “Creativity can help. Try to make sure your loved one feels a part of the holiday.”
If a senior’s holiday blues cannot be alleviated, it’s important to remember that they are only temporary. However, depression can easily worsen when untreated. If symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks, it may be time to find help. Depression is not a normal part of aging, and healthcare professionals can recommend treatments like medication, therapy, exercise, and socialization. Seniors’ lives will inevitably change, but cherishing old memories and opening one’s mind to new ones will help keep the holiday blues at bay.
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.