A Caregivers Guide to Easing Seasonal Depression

Amy Neu, MSW, LCSW

Caregiving for an aging loved one is difficult at any time of the year, but the winter months bring a unique set of physical and emotional challenges for caregivers and their elderly loved ones.  Winter’s cold temperatures, ice, and snow not only increase the risk of injury and illness, but often lead to depression and anxiety.  Additionally, winter holidays and more frequent isolation can elicit feelings of grief for losses of loved ones over the years and wistfulness for winters past.  So, how can caregivers and their elderly loved ones stay healthy and positive while facing the challenges of winter?

Older adults are greatly impacted by “the winter blues.”  Freezing temperatures and fewer daylight hours contribute to increased feelings of isolation and depression.  It is more difficult for older adults to safely navigate the community they live in and, as a result, many opt to stay at home rather than risk facing potential hazards outside.  During this time, I commonly hear clients ask themselves, “How did I get to the point where I can’t rely on myself to get what I need?”  They may find themselves grieving for their former healthy selves in addition to grieving for lost loved ones they could rely on during difficult times. Furthermore, many older adults who do not have a consistent caregiver in their lives feel that they are left to fend for themselves during the winter, ultimately leading to increased feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Similarly, caregiving in the winter is particularly demanding.  Not only do caregivers perform their routine responsibilities for their loved ones, they also have to make accommodations for weather issues. Taking a loved one to a doctor appointment often becomes more stressful and time-consuming due to winter-related factors such as additional driving time, potential mobility issues for their loved one when getting to and from the car, and working to keep their loved one calm under these circumstances.  Caregivers also tend to worry more about their loved ones in winter when risks for illnesses such as pneumonia, heart issues, and falls increase.  These pervasive worries over time can further compound caregiver stress.  When we combine these caregiver stressors with increased rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a type of depression related to the changes in season) in the winter, it is no wonder that many caregivers often feel exhausted and depressed.

With all of these challenges, how can older adults and caregivers overcome the “winter blues?”  First, it is essential for caregivers and their elderly loved ones to rely on their support systems as much as possible during these months.  Strong support systems not only help us fulfill our responsibilities, they also foster a sense of connectedness and reduce isolation, often alleviating depression.  Asking a friend or family member to help with something such as frequent short phone calls to check in on a homebound loved one can make a positive impact on the older adult’s mood and help ease a caregiver’s mind.  Additionally, coordinating an older adult’s transportation schedule among family and/or friends can help the older adult access what they need during winter (such as trips to the grocery store or pharmacy).  This coordination can take stress off of one caregiver who is juggling multiple tasks.

It is also imperative to practice good self-care during the winter months.  Eating well, staying hydrated, exercising, resting, and staying up to date on doctor appointments are important for overall well-being of both caregivers and their loved ones.  It is important to remember that good physical health of a caregiver makes for better quality care of their loved one.

Another way to combat the” winter blues” is through therapy.  If caregivers or elderly loved ones continue to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, counseling often provides relief.  Counseling offers the opportunity to talk through the difficulties in life, process grief and loss, and discover how to move forward.  Experienced therapists at West County Psychological Associates offer on-site counseling to relieve older adults and caregivers of the often difficult task of transportation during the winter months.

Since the winter months are commonly a struggle for caregivers and their elderly loved ones, it is essential for caregivers and older adults alike to practice good self-care, stay connected to social supports to reduce isolation, and ask these social supports for help when needed.  Sometimes, even when practicing these “winter blues” survival essentials, depression, anxiety, and isolation can become unmanageable.  A counselor can be a valuable asset to help process through these difficulties and move toward a warmer future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Neu, MSW, LCSW

Amy Neu received her Masters in Social Work from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. Amy provides private therapy for adults, families, and seniors who are facing a variety of issues including depression, anxiety, grief, coping with medical issues, and end of life. She has significant experience counseling seniors, caregivers, and families within medical systems and during transitional periods from home to alternate levels of care.

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