5 Tips for Seniors to Stay Mentally Healthy Through the Cold Winter Months

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VISITING ANGELS MN

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Jul 27, 2023

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Minnesota - Twin Cities Metro Area

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If you live in the upper Midwest, you’re no stranger to the harsh reality that comes with the change from fall to winter. The sun sets before 5:00. The bitter cold stings your lungs as you step outside. Huge amounts of snowfall can make venturing out of your home quite a challenge. Winter months bring increased safety concerns, especially for older adults in our area. Seniors face high susceptibility to developing depression due to isolation. There are more concerns with dangerous temperatures, keeping them isolated inside.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder),  typically develops late fall through spring/summer. SAD is a specific type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons and affects millions in the US.  Symptoms can include anxiety, poor appetite, and social withdrawal, among others. When you compound these symptoms with factors such as loss, declining health or mobility challenges, mental health is at risk. Oftentimes seniors live alone, with limited resources.  This can leave them isolated and unaccompanied for months at a time.

Isolation is one of the leading causes of depression for the elderly population. They don't have anywhere to go, so options to get out of the house are limited. When families live miles away, visitors can be few, leading to limited socialization.  This, combined with cold Minnesota winters, leave many seniors feeling lonesome and distraught. It is imperative that we check in on our senior loved ones during these times. Help them find ways to cope with the winter blues. Encourage them to find ways to stay mentally and physically active, and to find joy in each day. Here are 5 easy tips to help our elderly community navigate this challenging season. 

1. Maintain a Balanced Diet

A healthy diet can have a profound effect on mental health. If done consistently, it will provide a natural mood and energy boost that is  easy to obtain. The required amount of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals changes as we age.  It becomes even more important to get the right amounts of what our body needs. One key nutrient is Vitamin D. Limited daylight and less time in the sun reduce the amount of Vitamin D we absorb. Supplements are an option to combat this deficiency, but real, healthy food is best. Eating fatty fish (like salmon), mushrooms, eggs, some cheeses, and a limited amount of fortified cereals, milk or yogurt is a great Vitamin D source. A consistent, balanced, and colorful diet boosts your mood and can help prevent sickness and injury. Be sure to check with your physician before making any changes to your diet if you are taking prescription medications or have other illnesses.

If you have a home care service, ask your caregiver to develop a balanced meal plan and prepare meals with you. This will ensure you’re set up for success.  It takes the burden of the work off of you, with the added benefit of personal companionship. At Visiting Angels®, our caregivers are here to help find a diet that works for you. We can take care of your grocery shopping, meal planning, and preparation so you don’t have to do it on your own. If you would like more information, contact us and we will answer any questions you may have, or check out our FAQ page for insight as well.

2. Seek Out the Sun

If Mother Nature doesn’t allow you to be outside, try to spend a majority of your day in the brightest areas of your home. Open your blinds and sit in the sun with a good book; bask in the warmth and daydream about warmer days to come.

Another option is to try artificial light therapy (aka bright light therapy) using a light box. A light box mimics outdoor light. Some believe it can cause a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.  Even 30 minutes a day can make up for the lack of sunlight during the dreary winter months. Though this isn’t the best method for getting sunlight, it is an effective alternative. The National Institutes of Health have shown that light therapy can ease seasonal depression symptoms by as much as 70%. You can find lightboxes online at a range of sizes and prices to suit your needs. As with any changes to your health routine, it is best to talk with your healthcare provider about choosing and using a light box. If you're experiencing SAD and bipolar disorder, the advisability and timing of using a light box should be carefully reviewed with your healthcare provider.

3. Exercise the Mind

We know that exercise is important for the physical body. Mental exercise is also important for an active, healthy brain, especially as we age. Our brain changes over time.  These changes can cause cognitive decline and will influence our mental state. Engaging in daily mental exercise will keep the mind alert and sharp, and helps seniors to remain independent. In order for the brain to work at its best, you should challenge the mind, in some way, every day. Thankfully, exercising the mind can be fun and there are a variety of options for everyone. Enjoy reading? Find a good book and read by the fire or in the sun - a great way to get your mind active and soak up Vitamin D at the same time! A word puzzle such as a word finds or crossword puzzle, will keep the brain engaged. You don't need to figure out every answer, your brain gets a workout either way. Logic puzzles are another great mental exercise as they allow for lateral thinking.  This type of puzzle engages pathways that often have gone dormant after retirement. Logic requires you to use given information to come up with an answer to a specific problem. 

Not into word games? Take out a jigsaw puzzle. Assembling puzzles can help reduce blood pressure and slow respiration rates. This mental exercise becomes a form of meditation and relaxation. What a great bonus for seniors with busy minds!  Jigsaw puzzles are great for cold, blustery afternoons.  Turn on your favorite music, put on your comfy clothes, and enjoy the challenge.

4. Get Moving

Physical activity is an important piece of a healthy body. In the winter months, exercise can be key in improving one’s mood. It has also been shown to prolong memory loss and cognitive decline, like mental exercise.   A great option for older adults to get low-impact exercise is through yoga. Yoga's progression of fluid movement and stretching helps joint movement as well as increased blood flow to the entire body. Daily physical activity will fight off the winter blues by raising your heart rate. It will improve both immediate and long term mental and physical health.  Taking a walk isn't always possible. You may not have access to exercise machines or a swimming pool, turn up the tunes and get a couple chores done. You will get your daily exercise in and also feel a sense of accomplishment.

For those who have mobility challenges, there are options. Some simple, low-impact exercises can be done from a seated position. These movements will help reduce joint pain and improve your overall strength.

At a minimum, seniors should strive to get 30 minutes of physical activity 3 times per week.

5. Socialize

Seniors who maintain social connections report having improved mental health. Face-to-face connection with another adult can be the highlight of someone’s day. It is the perfect remedy for loneliness or despair on a gloomy day.  Not sure how or where to engage? Seek out an exercise class. Pick up the phone and call a friend or family member. Attend a social activity at your local senior center or within your living facility. If you have access to technology, use it as a way to stay connected with others. Video chat can be a great way to be face-to-face with family and friends, especially those who live far away. The smiling faces of your children and/or grandchildren can brighten your day any time of year! 

If you thrive on the physical presence of others, consider hiring a  caregiver. Having someone to help make meals, share stories, or be available for stand-by assistance can bring peace of mind and happier days. Visiting Angels®  provides a flexible schedule and trained, compassionate caregivers to keep you safe and happy through the winter months.

The winter blues are a common struggle in the upper Midwest. If you or someone you love suffer from SAD or struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation, Visiting Angels - West Metro is here to help. Our caregivers strive to help you remain in your home, where you are comfortable and feel the most secure. The companionship and personal assistance from a caregiver help to keep you safe.  Contact us today or give us a call at 952-935-0789 to set up a free, no obligation consultation. Seek out other local resources as well - most communities offer support groups, activities , and ways to stay connected. 

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