Blue Christmas: Depression in elderly during cold winter holidays

By: Mohan Garikiparithi | Mental Health | Saturday, December 26, 2015 - 08:00 AM

Senior woman contemplating

For most people the Christmas season means sweet treats, decking the halls and celebrations galore, but for some elderly people, a feeling of depression, also referred to as Blue Christmas, sets in at this time of year.

There are a lot of things to love about the holidays – the food, family traditions, music, parties, and spending time with people you haven’t seen in a long time. Seniors have had countless holidays like this, but over the years situations change. For example, health problems can prevent them from participating fully in certain holiday events and they may have lost loved ones. This means that Christmas can be a reminder of what has been lost, instead of being a time of great joy.

Holiday depression or holiday blues as some call it, is not uncommon at any age, but the elderly seem particularly prone to it during cold winter holidays. Grief counselors refer to the phrase, “sudden temporary upsurges or grief” when people are overcome by a trigger. For example, Christmas could remind someone of facing the holidays without a spouse.

Depression among the elderly is generally low if they are living on their own – between one and five percent. Battling depression becomes more of an issue when the elderly lose their independence and can’t live alone, when they lose their mobility, and when they lose a spouse or child.

Related Reading: Depression health news roundup 2015

Reasons seniors feel sad during the holiday season

seniors feel sadElderly depression and the holidays go hand-in-hand for many reasons. If you notice that one of your older relatives is anxious, irritable or quiet and this is not their normal personality, it could be the first signs of depression. Sleeping a lot, not eating and a lack of personal care, such as showering or combing hair, are other possible warning signs.

The holidays blues can be common among the elderly when they have suffered a serious physical problem, lost someone they care about, or when they lose their social network because they have moved in with relatives or to an assisted living facility. Battling depression during the holiday season is harder because it is generally an emotional time for all of us. We are connecting and making memories with people we love, remembering loved ones who are not with us anymore, and thinking about season’s past.

Holidays require a lot of moving around – visiting, shopping, baking and wrapping gifts. If a senior has limited mobility due to a medical condition, such as arthritis, or is using a walker, it can bring them down knowing their ability to participate is limited.

One out of every eight Americans is over the age of 65 and 28 percent live alone. Living alone, especially during the holidays, can be hard on a person’s mental health. As well, experts say lack of human contact puts people at a higher risk of conditions like heart disease and dementia.

Money can also give seniors holiday depression. They may want to be generous, but are on a fixed income and can’t afford to spend a lot on gifts, which makes them feel inadequate when they sit down to open gifts with family and friends.

For seniors healthy holidays are staying active

staying activeHelping seniors be active is one way to ensure a healthy holiday season for them. Taking a walk after a meal is a good idea since it can assist in controlling blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol and is a good way to clear your head.

Mentally stimulating activities like scrabble, checkers or backgammon can not only be fun and engaging for seniors, they can also activate the brain to help reduce stress and depression. So if you have a chance, suggest an activity to a senior you care about during the holidays. It’s important to keep in mind that while group or individual activities are great, simply providing emotional support by talking to a senior, visiting them or phoning them during the holiday season can be helpful, too.

Nutritionists say that although seniors like to enjoy the traditional holiday foods, they should limit their intake of sweets and remember to include super-foods in their diet, such as flaxseed, blueberries, nuts and salmon.

Having a purpose is important to all of us and that includes seniors. For some elderly, taking part in a religious service helps them remain calm and focused on their purpose. Other seniors may choose to participate in mindful exercises, such as yoga or meditation. There are also opportunities to do volunteer work during the holidays; something many seniors enjoy.

Related Reading: Exercise is just as important as you age

Tips to reduce depression and have a not-so-blue Christmas

reduce depressionIf you or someone you love is experiencing the holiday blues, some of the following tips may be beneficial.

  • Attend events, such as a holiday musical, or just listen to holiday tunes with them.
  • Get them involved in addressing holiday cards and/or baking with you.
  • Drive through the neighborhood after dark to look at the twinkling lights.
  • Ask for their suggestions and opinions when it comes to holiday plans.
  • Encourage them to join social activities in their community, such as the local senior’s center.
  • Encourage them to make a list of what they are thankful for so they can focus on the positive.
  • Talk to them about their sadness, sympathize and listen.
  • Adapt traditions if it is the only way to avoid pain in light of a loss that is still raw.
  • Decorate their room if they live in a care facility.
  • If you have small children, encourage them to read stories to them or do crafts with them.
  • Don’t be too forceful – it could lead to more depression.

Holiday depression normally does not last long, but when sadness seems to take a hold and doesn’t let go, it could be reason for concern. In situations like this, a senior needs to be watched closely and medical attention may be required. There could be a physical reason for the psychological pain. When it comes to elderly depression and the holidays, many say that they go through an adjustment period, especially after they lose a loved one, but once they develop new holiday routines, it gets easier to cope.

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