The long, cold months of deep winter can be especially challenging for those living with dementia. If you have a loved one with dementia, especially if they live alone, these challenges are even greater. Why is this? There are several reasons. Here are a few:
- Sundown syndrome. Did you know that the shorter winter days can exacerbate the condition known as “sundown syndrome”? This syndrome can bring on a state of extreme anxiety as each day transitions from daylight to evening and shadows are cast, before turning on lights.
- Depression. The lack of sunshine and natural vitamin D can lead to a state of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or “SAD”.
- Lack of sleep. The winter months can also disrupt our natural circadian rhythm due to confusion experienced with the reduced daylight hours. This can be especially detrimental for those who live alone and find themselves going to bed earlier than usual, due to diminishing daylight.
- Lack of exercise. Spending more time indoors and the lack of invigorating fresh air can lead to a reduced desire to move around and get daily exercise. This can, in turn, lead to stiffer joints, weight gain and poorer cognition due to less oxygen to the brain.
- Visual issues. More shadows and dark corners can affect visual acuity. Artificial light can create unnatural shadows that can play tricks on the eyes and impact depth perception.
Dealing effectively with these issues begins by recognizing them. Understanding potential reasons why mom seems especially depressed is part of the battle. The other part lies in finding ways to counteract the negative impact of winter months on your loved one’s physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing.
Here are a few tips to help your loved one get through these months and help improve your own health and outlook as well:
- Stick to a routine. Having a daily routine helps minimize stress. Familiar tasks and activities help reduce anxiety and help individuals with dementia feel more grounded to a predictable pattern that they can count on each day.
- Let a bit of the outdoors in. Heavy drapery and blinds can make an already dark room even more so. Open up the curtains and blinds during the day to let in as much natural light as possible. Bring in plants and flowers in to freshen up the room.
- Keep the rooms warm. Drafty, cold spaces can be immobilizing for someone with dementia. Sitting with a blanket all day does little for one’s circulation or frame of mind.
- Spend short periods of time outdoors. Of course this depends on weather, but even a short 10 minute stretch outdoors with some deep breathing can have a positive physical and emotional impact.
- Encourage indoor activities. These might include art, puzzles, or flower arranging. Getting involved in a project can refocus the mind on something that is productive and enjoyable.
Residents of Anthem Memory Care communities engage in daily activities, including exercise, art, music and reading to keep them engaged and connected to those around them. We also encourage short walks in our courtyard, weather permitting, because we know that even a few minutes of fresh air has a therapeutic impact during the winter months.
Recognizing the challenges that winter brings to the health and wellbeing of a loved one with dementia and taking steps to minimize its negative impact will make these long winter days a bit easier to bear. And, before we know it, spring will be in the air once again!
(The top image is of a resident of Highline Place Memory Care in Littleton, Colorado showing off her lovely flower arrangement.)