Flowers are blooming, the days are getting longer, and spring is in the air. Spring and summer are usually considered to be happy times of the year, and generally mean greater psychological well-being for many seniors. But this is not true for everyone. Scientists have discovered that there are unique, spring-specific factors known to be triggers for depression. These symptoms fall under the umbrella known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Familiarizing yourself with SAD (and how to treat it) can help you provide the best possible care for your loved ones, armed with the knowledge that the seasons may be responsible for their cloudy disposition.
A Closer Look at What it Means to Be SAD
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that causes depression and depression-related symptoms at the same time every year. SAD usually begins in adulthood, and affects women more often than men. Some only feel irritable or out of sorts, yet mild cases that caused little trouble in adult life could become a compounding factor in older adults, who are dealing with a multitude of aging challenges.
If you have heard of seasonal affective disorder before, chances are you learned about its most common form: winter depression. Winter depression occurs in fall and winter, when the sky becomes darker and the days are shorter. Scientists believe this directly relates to the eyes, through a brain process that uses light levels to regulate the production of melatonin in the body. But SAD isn’t just restricted to winter—about 10% of Americans who suffer from the condition experience depression in the spring and summer.
Symptoms of summer depression include:
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Agitation or anxiety
If winter episodes of SAD are caused by a lack of light during the season, why do people experience SAD during the sun-drenched months of spring? Darkness is no longer the culprit, but experts are uncertain of what exactly is at fault.
What Causes Summer Depression?
Many experts believe that the perception of change, shifting sunlight patterns, returning hot and humid conditions, and seasonal airborne allergens all work together to produce the changes in mood brought about by spring and summer SAD. But the weather is not the only thing that moves with the seasons.
Due to our human evolutionary history, the body goes through changes as the seasons turn. Our diet, hormones, activity levels, and sleep patterns shift with nature. Disrupted circadian rhythms are closely tied to depression, so biological changes that increase energy and make it more difficult to sleep could be affecting your loved one’s well-being.
Social factors can also play a huge role in your loved one’s happiness during spring. If an older person suffers from reduced mobility, for example, seeing all the fun and physical activities their family starts in springtime could make them feel isolated and “out of the loop.” Spring can be a reminder that their body has limitations, and can bring more attention to aging than any other time of year.
The most dramatic seasonal change all year happens in the early spring months. Nature is waking up from its long winter sleep, and that can mean a huge increase in pollen and other allergens that affect our bodies and hormones in unpredictable ways.
While allergies are often only thought of as an irritation, there are theories that suggest some forms of depression could be an allergic reaction. If your loved one has tried treating their seasonal depression in the past but it didn’t respond to antidepressants, the cause of their depression might actually be related to inflammation.
Brightening the Sunshine Blues
Because depression and its causes are as numerous and unique as the people whom it affects, depression treatment must be just as varied. Everyone has their own challenges and sensitivities, so listening closely to your loved one is the best place to start in the quest to provide them with relief.
- Find out if your loved one has allergies. It may be of great benefit to get them tested to discover what they are sensitive to, and remove those things from their diet and environment. Interacting with animals can do wonders for the mood of older adults who struggle with loneliness, but if you discover they are allergic, it may be best to limit contact. Invest in air purifiers for your loved one’s home. Doing some spring cleaning is also a wonderful social and practical activity that you can do together.
- Activity is key. Having increased energy and a desire to move goes along with the invigorating spring season. But being held back by the physical limitations of old age can be very frustrating. Be aware of your loved one’s limits, and do your best to bring the joy of spring to their activity level. Spend time with them in the garden, open those blinds, and let the sunshine in! Consider taking them out to the ball game.
- Restful Sleep. The increase in light during spring and summer could affect your loved one’s ability to sleep as soundly. Melatonin levels naturally lower during spring and summer, which can make it more difficult for them to achieve adequate rest—and sunshine pouring in early won’t help. Create a darker sleeping environment (better blinds or a sleep visor) for them. This might also mean cutting down on any television or electronic device use before bed: These have been known to disrupt circadian rhythms, and limiting their use at night can increase sound sleep.
- Lighter Foods. If your loved one has a low appetite and is losing weight, shifting their diet towards things the body naturally craves during spring could help them eat more. This includes more salads, fruits, and vegetables. However, be aware that these contain significantly fewer calories than hearty, warming winter foods, so balance is essential.
A Silver Lining
Not even concrete can prevent the growth of plants that want to reach the sun. With the determination to uncover the cause and alleviate the symptoms of seasonal depression, you and your loved one can push through this barrier, reduce the harm of SAD, and make spring a joyful time for everyone once again.
At Institute on Aging, we provide support for you and your loved ones in the battle against depression and other difficulties seniors face. Contact us today to learn about the help and resources IOA can provide.