As days grow shorter and sunlight exposure becomes scarcer, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) becomes more common. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, but seniors with dementia are more prone to this health condition. As dementia progresses, it may become more difficult for a person with the disease to recognize the signs and symptoms of SAD in themselves.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a type of depression that occurs in late fall and early winter and often ends in spring or early summer. The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but research points to the lack of light as the primary contributor as the days grow shorter a decrease in melatonin and serotonin levels, and pre-existing health conditions such as dementia. Symptoms include depression, lethargy, fatigue, anxiety, loneliness, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, and insomnia. Sometimes, people also experience overeating, weight gain, and oversleeping.
For people living with dementia, the effects can be profound. A symptom called sundowning, which relates to increased agitation or confusion among those experiencing dementia, is common and disruptive. And as we usher in the colder months, sundowning can get worse.
If you or a loved one has dementia, it's essential to know how the changing seasons can impact mood and behavior.
Stick with your Routine
The time change may be out of our control, but as a care partner, there are several ways to handle the effects it has on people with dementia.
In general, those with dementia need to keep a stable routine. If your loved one is used to going to bed at 8:00 pm, you should continue that routine.
Increasing exposure to natural light or specially designed artificial light can help ease the symptoms of depression. It works best when seniors are exposed to the lighting within the first hour of waking and can be used at intervals throughout the day. Light therapy helps because it causes a change in brain chemicals that are linked to mood. People tend to notice a decrease in symptoms after a few days.
Regular, low-intensity exercise can help boost the feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as oxytocin. This improves mood and circulation, which are good for brain health. Care partners can customize exercise programs or regimes for your loved one. To get the most out of incorporating exercise into a dementia care plan, choose activities that your loved one finds enjoyable. Ideas include nature walks (weather permitting), yoga, and chair exercises.
Many studies show a link between reduced dementia symptoms and listening to music. Since musical therapy decreases symptoms of depression, it helps with dementia and seasonal affective disorder. Work with your loved one to understand which type of music they respond to best, and provide exposure to soothing live music when possible.
In some cases, antidepressants are given for SAD. The disadvantage of antidepressant therapy is that it takes several weeks. Some antidepressants are contraindicated for those with dementia because they can worsen cognition. The attending physician will consider if an antidepressant is needed and, if so, which type of antidepressant is best for those with Alzheimer's disease.
Commonly referred to as "therapy," is another potential treatment for SAD. Therapy can help individuals deal with negative thoughts and behaviors, learn coping mechanisms, and deal more effectively with stress. If necessary, the attending physician can make a referral for your loved one with dementia if psychotherapy is recommended.
For more assistance with behavior change, please reach out to one of our Dementia Outreach Specialists. Call our toll-free number, 888-308-6251, or visit our website at alzwisc.org.