Holed up | A dementia caregiver’s guide to cabin fever

Written by Healthy Living News. Posted in February

  • The holidays have come and gone for another year and, with them, any fanciful notions about dashing through a winter wonderland. Now it’s time to face the harsh realities of February in the Midwest—prolonged cold, icy snow, and seemingly endless days stuck indoors. Winter in these parts is enough to give anyone a case of cabin fever.


Although the term implies a medical condition, cabin fever is more accurately a state of mind. Being cooped up at home during long periods of bitter weather leads to winter doldrums, and Midwesterners afflicted with cabin fever exhibit symptoms ranging from listlessness to despair.

Not surprisingly, cabin fever’s effects are especially severe in individuals with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Knowing cabin fever’s signs could help you recognize when someone under your care is afflicted so you can help them cope.

What cabin fever looks like

Cabin fever produces symptoms similar to those associated with claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Sufferers can exhibit greater than normal irritability, trouble sleeping, lack of patience, and an overall inability to concentrate. “Both cabin fever and Alzheimer’s share many symptoms with depression,” explains Kathi Allen, director of nursing for Foundation Park Care Center. “So, when dementia patients experience cabin fever, those symptoms are understandably magnified.”

Allen says cabin fever affects each person with Alzheimer’s differently. Those used to spending most of their time indoors might avoid its effects for weeks. Others could begin showing symptoms after only a day or two. “For some Alzheimer’s patients, cabin fever causes feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” says Allen. “Many are overly tired, and most withdraw socially.”

With so many symptoms in common, it’s important that caregivers avoid mistaking depression for a temporary case of cabin fever. For that reason, Allen recommends discussing any behavioral changes with a physician.

Dealing with cabin fever

Activity is a surefire cure for cabin fever. Keeping busy helps relieve the sense of confinement and lessens restlessness in a homebound person with Alzheimer’s. Choose activities that keep the individual engaged, not just occupied. Research shows that goal-oriented activities help create feelings of usefulness and self-worth. Involving someone with dementia in performing household chores, for example, can make the person feel important and relevant. What’s more, having tasks to complete helps someone with Alzheimer’s establish much-needed routines.

Of course, activities don’t have to be all work. “Having fun goes a long way toward easing cabin fever,” says Foundation Park’s Allen. “We encourage participation in singing, dancing, playing games, and crafts.” Also beneficial are activities that stimulate the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling—as much as possible. “The most important thing is that participation be voluntary,” explains Allen. “Fun activities that engage the senses help motivate individuals to take part.”

Don’t forget the caregiver

If you’re caring at home for someone with dementia, you could find yourself suffering your own case of cabin fever. When that happens, take advantage of mild days to get outside, even for a little while, to enjoy a change of scenery.

And speaking of changing scenery, respite services provide individuals with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers much-needed breaks. Respite care is available at home or in care settings such as adult day centers and residential facilities. Adult day centers offer individuals with Alzheimer’s safe places to spend the day with others. Residential facilities provide options for overnight stays—whether for several days or a few weeks—allowing caregivers time to work or take vacations. “Our experience is that respite stays provide caregivers breathers that actually help strengthen their caregiving abilities,” reports Allen.❦


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