What is sundowning?
Sundowning is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It’s also known as “late-day confusion.” If someone you care for has dementia, their confusion and agitation may get worse in the late afternoon and evening. In comparison, their symptoms may be less pronounced earlier in the day.
Your loved one is most likely to experience sundowning if they have mid-stage to advanced dementia. Learn about steps you can take to help reduce sundowning, for their benefit as well as your own.
1. Stick to a schedule
Dementia can make it hard to develop and remember new routines. Your loved one might react to unfamiliar places and things with feelings of stress, confusion, and anger. These feelings can play a large role in sundowning.
Stick to the same schedule every day to help your loved one feel more calm and collected. Try to avoid making changes to routines that work for you both. If you need to make changes, try to adjust their routine gradually and as little as possible.
2. Light up their life
Your loved one might experience sundowning as the result of changes in their circadian rhythms — their sleep-wake cycles. Adjusting the light in their home might help reduce their symptoms.
According to a research review published in Psychiatric Investigation, some studies suggest light therapy can reduce agitation and confusion in people with dementia. Consider placing a full-spectrum fluorescent light about one meter away from your loved one for a couple of hours each morning. You can also try brightening the lights when your loved one feels confused or agitated, suggests the Alzheimer’s Association.
3. Keep them active
Many people who experience sundowning syndrome have trouble sleeping at night. In turn, fatigue is a common trigger of sundowning. This can create a vicious cycle.
Too much daytime dozing and inactivity can make it harder for your loved one to fall asleep at bedtime. To promote a good night’s sleep, help them stay active during the day. For example, go for a walk in the park together or clear some space to dance. This might help improve their sleep quality and reduce their sundowning symptoms. It can also help them enjoy better physical health.
4. Adjust their eating patterns
Adjusting your loved one’s eating patterns may also help reduce their sundowning symptoms. Large meals can increase their agitation and may keep them up at night, especially if they consume caffeine or alcohol. Encourage your loved one to avoid those substances or enjoy them at lunch rather than dinner. Limiting their evening food intake to a hearty snack or light meal might help them feel more comfortable and rest easier at night.
5. Minimize their stress
Try to help your loved one stay calm in the evening hours. Encourage them to stick to simple activities that aren’t too challenging or frightening. Frustration and stress can add to their confusion and irritability.
If they have mid-stage or advanced dementia, watching television or reading a book might be too difficult for them. Instead, consider playing soft music to create a calm and quiet environment. It might be a nice time for them to snuggle with a beloved cat or other pet.
6. Provide conformity
Think back to the last time you were sick. Chances are you wanted to be surrounded by comforting thoughts, things, and people. For someone with dementia, the world can become a scary place. Comfort and familiarity can help them cope with this difficult time in life.
Help fill your loved one’s life and home with things they find comforting. If they move into a hospital or assisted living facility, furnish the space around them with cherished items. For example, bring their favorite blanket or family photos to the new facility. This may help ease the transition and curb their sundowning symptoms.
7. Track their behavior
Each person has different triggers for sundowning. To help identify your loved one’s triggers, use a journal or smartphone app to track their daily activities, environments, and behaviors. Look for patterns to learn which activities or environments seem to make their symptoms worse.
Once you know their triggers, it will be easier to avoid situations that promote agitation and confusion.
Care for yourself too
Sundowning syndrome can be exhausting, not just for your loved one but for you too. As a caregiver, it’s essential to take good care of yourself. You’ll be in a better position to give your loved one the patience and support they need when you’re rested and healthy.
Try to eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep at night. Ask other family members or friends to spend time with your loved one, so you can enjoy regular breaks. You can also ask your doctor about respite care and other professional support services, which can help you take time out from your caregiving duties.