While the Beatles sang, "Here comes the sun" after "a long, cold lonely winter," we are sadly entering that dismal season and will have to wait many months before we can join their joyful tune. Now that we are back on standard time and the sun is slowly sinking before 5 p.m., we are sliding towards winter darkness. All of us--especially the elderly--are affected by seasonal chances. In fact, research shows that the amount of sunshine we are exposed to impacts cognitive function.
Summer sun calls us outside to take a long walk, work in our garden, or sit on patio in the full warmth of the season. We just feel good to be outside in the sunshine. Research confirms what we have all suspected: that older adults--with or without dementia--have better cognitive function in the summer than in the winter.
Scientists find that exposure to sunshine affects mood. Professors at Brigham Young University found that "seasonal changes in sun time were found to best account for relationships between weather variables and variability in mental health distress. Increased mental health distress was found during periods of reduced sun time hours." In other words, the more time people spent in the sun, the happier they were; the less sun, the more distressed they became.
The sun's rays produces vitamin D, which contributes to the production of serotonin, a hormone that boosts our moods and helps us to be calm and focused. Serotonin, in turn, is important in creating melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.
For people with dementia, a decrease in sunlight and serotonin can affect their wellbeing. It exacerbates a condition called sundowning, marked by increased confusion and irritability along with pacing, restlessness, shadowing, hallucinations, wandering, and even violent or paranoid behavior.
Ways that caregivers can address such unsettling behaviors may include:
turning on as many lights as possible before sunset
making appointments and visiting in the sunny daylight hours
avoiding naps in the daytime so that sleep occurs in the evening hours to avoid restlessness during the night
avoiding noise and stimulating activities as the day wanes
keeping to a routine as much as possible
While we approach winter with less sunlight, we know that spring and summer will surely follow. In the meantime, bring your loved one with memory changes to Among Friends on Tuesdays, 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Our songs, activities, and social interactions will make our short days happier. Contact us at (715) 293-2561 or firstname.lastname@example.org.