When it first arrives, winter can bring boundless joy with picturesque snowfalls and warm cups of cocoa while seniors are gathered around a roaring fire in one of their community rooms. But as the bitter cold months drag on — we’re still more than a month away from spring in mid-March — the winter blues can set in, negatively impacting a senior loved one’s health.
During this time, seniors can face greater risks of contracting a cold or the flu as well as decreased physical activity and social isolation. Seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression, can pose a threat to seniors, with signs that include decreased energy, losing interest in activities that were once enjoyed, having problems sleeping, drastic changes in appetite and weight and feelings of hopelessness.
Seniors don’t have to succumb to this downcast mood, though. By eating healthy, being mobile, keeping their mind active and staying in touch with loved ones, seniors can continue living a healthy lifestyle while waiting for the warmer months ahead.
There’s something about the colder months that make you crave heavier and fattier foods. But indulging too much in unhealthy foods can leave you feeling lethargic and less prone to keep an active routine. Focus on cooking with healthy ingredients. Some of the fruits and vegetables that are currently in season during the colder months are grapefruit, oranges, cabbage, squash, potatoes and onions.
For seniors, getting the flu or a cold can be incredibly dangerous due to a weakened immune system. Marcia Ory, Ph.D., Director at Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging, notes: “During winter, there is a greater risk of getting the cold and flu virus, especially for seniors. When people age, their internal temperature is affected, which can make some seniors more prone to getting the virus and have harsher symptoms.”
Increase your defenses against the virus by eating foods that boost your immune system, including mushrooms and citrus fruits. Foods that are high in fiber, including apples and nuts, also help to keep your immune system strong. Omega-3 fatty acid foods are another great option to eat healthy. Not only do the fatty acids help reduce joint pain through anti-inflammation, it even works to fight off depression. Try cooking dishes which include salmon, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans and eggs.
Numerous studies have shown the positive impacts of physical exercise on the mind and body. Not only does it help keep your body in shape, it is a natural mood enhancer. Exercise can increase the amounts of serotonin released in your body, which affects your overall mood. When it’s too cold to head outside, simply change your exercise setting and keep moving. Some great indoor activities include yoga and Pilates. Online videos and Wii Fit games are some alternatives.
Taking fitness classes can be a great workout option. Seniors can choose which class they are interested in while beating the cold outdoors. Doing a class with a friend or neighbor adds extra benefits of spending time with others, which can help fight off the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
“The trick for seniors to stay healthy during the winter is to keep moving, but bring your workout indoors,” Ory said. “There are many chair exercises and videos seniors can do inside their home. Even walking in the mall or grocery store is a great way to stay active while also socializing with friends.”
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder. Cast off the blues by getting your daily dose of sunshine. Even though it may be too cold for a full workout outdoors, going for a simple stroll around your neighborhood, walking your dog and getting the mail are simple ways to get some Vitamin D for the day — if you can brave the frigid weather.
If the temperature is too much to handle, purchasing a sun lamp and LED daylight bulbs can help substitute for going outdoors and improve your mood. Light boxes and daylight bulbs can mimic natural sunlight while allowing you to stay warm and toasty indoors.
To get an extra boost of vitamin D, try focusing your diet on foods including salmon, tuna, oysters, shrimp, milk, mushrooms and egg yolks.
As important as it is to keep your body active, it’s just as important to keep your mind healthy and working. Puzzles, reading a book and brain teasers are all useful activities to stimulate your brain. Board games are a fun way to practice your strategic thinking while having fun with family and friends.
Trying out a new hobby is a fun and engaging way to get your mind moving. For seniors who want to let their creative juices flow, dabble in painting or learn a new instrument. Simply listening to music can also activate parts of your brain. Cooking is another hobby that can encourage you to eat healthier.
During the holidays, it tends to be easier to connect with loved ones over opening Christmas presents and counting down for the New Year. However, it can be difficult to keep the momentum going after January 1. To try and avoid isolation, seniors and family members alike can plan future get-togethers such as movie nights, dinner dates and even regular phone calls.
A common symptom of seasonal affective disorder is losing interest in socializing. But by having dates planned for meeting up with family, this can help encourage socialization. Don’t miss out on chances to meet up with friends as well. Taking an art or fitness class or joining a book club can help transform your outlook from negative to positive.
“Staying connected with loved ones and being socially active is very important for seniors to combat depression and seasonal affective disorder,” Ory said. “Seniors can make regular phone calls and connect through Facebook and social media. Volunteering is another great way to socialize while helping others.”
While winter can bring tough natural conditions, it doesn’t have to influence your overall health. By implementing a healthy diet, regular physical and mental exercise and spending time with loved ones, seniors can ward off the risks of illness and resist the urge to hibernate for the season.
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