by Rebecca Logsdon, PhD
Q. My mother has dementia and lives with me. We are together most of the time, because I don’t feel comfortable leaving her by herself for very long at a time. These rainy, dark winter days are affecting both my own mood, and my mother’s mood. What suggestions do you have for activities or things we can do that would help get us out of our midwinter slump?
A. Winter can be a difficult time for many of us. First, it takes more effort to go out, because of the combination of weather, darkness, and post holiday fatigue. Second, we have less opportunity for exercise and exposure to natural light, both of which help to regulate our mood and sleep.
Think of what you and your mother enjoy doing when the weather is good, and brainstorm ways to modify those activities so you can continue them. If you enjoy walking in the summer, you could pick a couple of days a week to walk indoors at the mall, or resolve to take advantage of opportunities when the sky brightens up during the day to drop whatever you are doing and take a quick walk. Just 20 minutes outside makes a difference, even if it’s cloudy. If you enjoy gardening, make some trips to the nursery to look at the plants and plan your spring garden. Bring flowers indoors by forcing bulbs, or treat yourselves to an occasional bouquet. Listen to music as you clean up around the house.
Get out your calendar and write down something every day that you and your mother can look forward to. Play gin rummy or go fish; get some inexpensive water colors and spend an afternoon painting; bake bread; have an afternoon “tea time” and invite a neighbor over; put photos into an album; sort jewelry; look at a magazine; watch a video. If you write these things down ahead of time, it helps make them more of an “event” for both of you, and breaks the monotony of the usual routine.
If you need some time for yourself (and we all do), think about enlisting friends or family members to take your mother for a visit (even just an hour or so will help), and suggest an activity that they could do with her. You might also check into Memory Wellness Programs or Adult Day Health Centers that provide interesting and appropriate activities during the day for your mother. These programs usually provide physical, mental, and social activity, and many offer both transportation and lunch—and give you the time to do something you would like to do on your own. To learn more about programs near you, call the Alzheimer’s Association, at 800-363-5500.
It takes effort to break out of winter inertia, especially when you’re caring for someone with dementia, but it is well worth it. Not everything you do will work out, but the key is to just keep trying. If your mood doesn’t improve within a few weeks, talk to your primary care doctor about how you’re feeling. He or she can suggest options for treating depression, including counseling, medication, or other alternatives. And don’t wait until you’re feeling terrible to start doing something about it—the sooner you start, the easier it will be to break out of your winter slump.