Many people delight in the changing of the seasons and look forward to the beauty of each seasonal shift. Those suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), however, find it hard to find the joy in the transition from summer to fall and winter.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that only occurs during a certain season, most often winter (although SAD can affect some people during the summer months). While the causes of SAD are unknown, many scientists believe it’s tied to the reduced sunlight during the winter months.
When winter rolls around, some seniors may find their activities and social life limited by the weather. Getting around can be harder for older adults during the winter months, and the combination of less sunlight and increased isolation can raise the risk for depression of all types.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are more likely to experience SAD than men and those living in the northern part of the world where the daylight wanes in the winter are more likely to see signs of SAD. In fact, about 5% of people in the United States will experience SAD.
The symptoms of SAD often mirror the symptoms of depression and can include:
- Low energy
- Feeling constantly depressed
- Loss of interest
- Sleeping a lot
- Overeating (especially high-carbohydrate foods)
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts
As with any type of depression, treatment is important to return seniors to full health. In a 2020 study from GeneSight, two-thirds of adults 65 and older experiencing symptoms of depression said they would not seek help for it.
All types of depression, including SAD, are most often treatable with medication and therapy, and caregivers can play a key role in helping seniors recognize the need for treatment. And while medication and therapy are an important part of any treatment plan for depression, the treatment for SAD can be as simple as letting in the light.
If seasonal affective disorder is caused by a lack of sunlight, then getting more sun should be the easy answer. For those who suffer from SAD who live in warmer winter climates, simply getting out and enjoying more sunlight can be helpful, but that’s more difficult in colder areas, especially for seniors who may not be able to tolerate the cold as well.
Bright light therapy
For many seniors, more sun isn’t a viable option, so an additional light source is needed. Because research shows that SAD is linked to a decreased exposure to sunlight, bright light therapy seeks to replace the lost light and reset the body’s circadian rhythms or internal clock.
“Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms,” writes Michael Craig Miller, MD, in the Harvard Health Blog. “Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms.”
Bright light therapy entails sitting in front of a special light box that provides a light with an intensity of 10,000 lux. (For comparison,sunlight has an intensity of 50,000 lux.) The therapy works best when used for 30 minutes first thing in the morning.
This therapy option works well for seniors, even those with limited mobility, because it doesn’t require any physical activity. Many people use the time during bright light therapy to read, watch TV or even work.
While bright light therapy has been shown to be effective in inducing remission of SAD, it’s not the best option for everyone. Some people can’t tolerate the bright light, while others may need a brighter light to diminish SAD symptoms. Those with bipolar disorder may find bright light therapy exacerbates their condition, while those with diabetes or other eye diseases should check with their doctor before trying this therapy.
Bright light therapy lamps are often covered by both private and government insurance, but be sure to check your loved one’s own plan to determine what bright light therapy will cost.
Because SAD is a form of depression, meeting with a therapist and engaging in talk therapy can be an effective treatment. Therapists can help seniors learn new strategies to change their thinking, which can be helpful in overcoming depression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that teaches those who struggle with depression to replace their negative thoughts with positive ones. Studies have shown it can be as effective as antidepressant medication as a first-line treatment option for all types of depression.
A variety of antidepressant medications can also be used to treat seniors with SAD, but it can take time and patience to find the right option for them.
Remember: Because many seniors also take other medications, it’s important your loved one’s doctor knows about every prescription they have to avoid drug interactions that could make the depression worse or cause other health issues.
While any of these treatment options may work on its own, some seniors may require a combination approach. Bright light therapy, talk therapy and medication can all be used on their own or in tandem to treat seasonal affective disorder.
Every person is different, and your loved one’s health conditions, medications and body will determine the best course of treatment for them. And like any medical remedies, all treatments for SAD should only be tried under the supervision of a doctor.
Hope and healing
Seasonal affective disorder can be an unwelcome and disruptive presence for a senior. But the arrival of fall and winter doesn’t have to mean the arrival of darkness in an older adult’s life. With the right therapy, seniors don’t have to wait for the arrival of spring to banish SAD.