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Cabin fever can take its toll on seniors

February 18, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Duane Ralph watches the world through a window at Potomac Towers. Cold weather has kept him and other indoors much of the winter. For some seniors, being cooped up can bring on feelings of isolation.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff photographer

This is the winter of Ruth Murphy's discontent.


With month after month of snow, ice and frigid temperatures, the 75-year-old woman is having trouble staying positive.

But it wasn't always that way.

There was a time when Murphy enjoyed brisk weather, sledding with her children and family ski trips.

But age, failing eyesight and arthritis have changed her lifestyle.

Instead of taking to the outdoors, she takes to her house.

"With health problems, I feel safer staying put,"  Murphy said.

The result?

"I have a serious case of cabin fever," the Hagerstown resident said.

Boredom, restlessness, irritability — whatever the symptoms, researchers say cabin fever is real.

Sometimes referred to as seasonal affected disorder (SAD), it strikes young and old. But it can be especially difficult on the elderly, who often don't drive or have the opportunities for regular social contact.

According to research by the Mayo Clinic, the top fears of seniors are  loneliness, followed by a fear of falling and getting injured.

These fears are heightened during the winter, the study said, when bad weather raises concerns of injury, as well as less interaction with family and friends.

Depending on the individual's personality, the Mayo Clinic said, prolonged periods of being indoors with little outside contact could result in depression or anxiety.

Research by the University of Pittsburgh noted that winter moodiness often is associated with not enough environmental stimulation, long nights and bleak landscapes.

Some seasonally related symptoms can be debilitating — both mentally and physically, the study said.

Dara Bergel Bourassa, assistant professor and director of gerontology at the Department of Social Work and Gerontology at Shippensburg University, agrees.

"I believe that anytime people are restricted from being able to do their day-to-day activities, it can impact one psychologically — especially if the older adult has a history of isolation," she said.

But how a person reacts to isolation depends on the individual,  Bourassa said.

"If an older adult was an isolate earlier in life, he or she may not have many issues related to isolation in later life," she noted. "However, if a person was socially active when they were younger and then become isolated in later life due to family and friends passing away or moving away, health issues or weather-related issues, this could lead to behavioral health issues, such as depression and/or anxiety."

If a family member or friend has spent most of the winter indoors, Bourassa said there are signs that would be a clue as to how well they are doing.

"If the older adult is lonely, they may exhibit symptoms of depression, such as not sleeping well or sleeping too much, poor eating habits or being in a bad mood for a long period of time," she said.

Bourassa said one of the symptoms of depression is a loss of appetite, "so we would think that someone exhibiting seasonal affected disorder would also stop eating. But many seniors tend to "comfort eat, which is usually in contrast to the eating habits of individuals with depression."

What are some things people can do to prevent a serious case of cabin fever?

For the older adults who enjoy being with other people but are stuck indoors during the winter months, Bourassa said it might be helpful to find alternative socialization resources, such as social networking sites on the Internet. They might also consider learning a new craft or hobby.

Bourassa noted there also are groups and organizations that offer friendly visitation that could help with the homebound older adult. The volunteer visits the senior citizen on a regular basis, providing socialization, as well as an opportunity to check on the individual's well being.

You might also contact agencies that will telephone seniors for casual conversation, she said.

Another option, she said, is being involved with a local senior center or recreation department to see if any day trips have been planned and could assist in transporting the senior to and from their home. 

Trying to get out of the house for a few minutes of fresh air can be a great mood changer, she said.

Even long-distance friends and relatives can bring some light into a senior's dark day. The Institute on Aging suggests sending a letter to loved ones who live alone. Make a point to send a note on a regular basis. An old-fashioned letter in this age of electronic communication means a lot to seniors.

And don't overlook the little things. Something as simple as buying and filling a bird feeder and attaching it directly to a window can be uplifting for someone at home, the institute said.

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