“It usually starts sometime after Thanksgiving. We see it coming,” explains Anna’s daughter and primary caregiver. “We try to help her find purpose in her days, and stay positive. But the darker it gets outside, the harder it is to help her feel motivated, and find joy in the little things.”
Anna’s not alone. The Canadian Association of Mental Health pegs seasonal affected disorder (SAD) as a type of depression that takes hold around the same time each year, most commonly in fall and winter. Research shows the lack of light can have a ripple effect across a wide range of health factors, from mood to sleep – and seniors are no exception.
In fact, some studies have shown as many as 44% of Canadians living in seniors facilities have a diagnosis or symptoms of some form of depression. The real question is: what can we do about it?
Like any health concern, if you see worrying signs of depression in a senior, reach out to their physician. Treatment options, like bright-light therapy, can make a difference. In fact, research shows sun lamps can help the body regulate melatonin (a hormone that plays a big part in controlling the sleep-wake cycle), as well as serotonin (which ties in to mood). That’s why bright-light therapy can be a solid piece of the treatment puzzle for folks suffering from SAD, non-seasonal depression, dementia, and a host of other conditions.
You may want to ask the doctor about ‘sundowning’ at the same time. It’s not uncommon for seniors suffering from various forms of dementia to report behavioural and mood disturbances in the afternoon or early evening hours. Coined ‘sundowning’ because it’s associated with fading light, studies show symptoms can worsen in the fall and winter, as cold weather keeps seniors indoors.
Staying on the look-out for symptoms of sundowning is particularly important this year, as social distancing measures disproportionately isolate people from older demographics. The good news is, you can mitigate the impacts by planning ahead, and using light to your advantage.
Steps as simple as turning lamps on earlier, using timers to ensure a senior has enough light at the right times of the day, or moving activities like dinner or bathing up into brighter periods have helped families like Anna’s navigate this time of year effectively.
True, too, for the simple incorporation of holiday lights into the home. Across Quebec and Canada, a host of municipalities are urging residents to join them in switching holiday lights on earlier than ever before. Why? Psychologists say flipping the switch on holiday lights enables many people to zero in on happy memories. Holiday lights and decor can provide a healthy distraction from the headlines, and build positive anticipation around upcoming celebrations.
“Just switching the twinkle lights on inside, and around the porch so she can enjoy them through the window, has definitely given my mom a little boost over the last week or two. I don’t know if there’s a scientific connection. But they certainly make her smile,” says Anna’s daughter.
Of course, not everyone associates the holidays with positive memories. But for seniors who do, there’s no harm in putting a little extra effort into getting those lights up early. Safely decorating for the holidays with a caregiver can spark conversations, stimulate good memories, and give people something upbeat to think about. That goes a long way at a time like this.
Light plays a fundamental role at the heart of so many cultural and religious holidays. At its most basic level, light makes us feel good. In a clinical setting, the right kind of light treatment can support overall care plans meant to combat everything from depression to dementia. Finding ways to help a senior light up their life right now could have a lasting effect on their health and wellbeing just as many of us could use the lift.
*Anna and her daughter’s names have been changed and omitted to respect their privacy preferences.