Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is challenging, as they battle memory loss, restlessness and confusion throughout the day. But for many, as evening approaches even more strange and unexpected behaviors present due to a condition called “sundowner’s syndrome”, or simply “sundowning”. According to the Mayo Clinic, roughly 20 to 45% of all Alzheimer’s patients experience its effects.
No definitive cause is known for sundowning, although it appears to coincide with dopamine and melatonin-related circadian rhythm disruptions in their bodies triggered by sunset. If you suspect that a senior that you are caring for has sundowner’s syndrome, there are several proven ways to manage it.
Signs of Sundowners Syndrome
Sundowner’s syndrome is a neurological phenomenon that presents with one or more of these symptoms:
- Increased mental and physical fatigue at sunset.
- Amplified tremors that can become uncontrollable.
- As natural light fades, and more shadows appear, their confusion level rises.
- Increased restlessness while trying to sleep, which can lead to pacing and wandering that is potentially harmful for the person who’s already confused.
- Dramatic mood swings that tend to be triggered or exacerbated by noise.
- Yelling at, and becoming increasingly more agitated with, their caregiver.
Fortunately, there are some effective ways to help prevent, or at least reduce the likelihood and severity of, these symptoms when caring for someone with sundowner’s syndrome.
Sundowner’s Syndrome Management
Increase sunlight exposure
Research has shown that exposing an Alzheimer’s patient to sunlight can help reset their internal circadian “clock”, so encourage them to go outside on a sunny day as much as possible. Open the window coverings to their home to allow full sunlight in during the day, and take them to the park or just sit in the backyard, while enjoying the outdoors.
Eat dinner earlier
When serving dinner, try moving it up to the late afternoon or early evening. Limit food intake later in the day, without causing them to feel hungry when it’s bedtime. Too much food can cause sleep-altering digestive problems in the middle of the night, so try to find the right balance of larger meals earlier in the day, supplemented by healthy, lighter snacks as evening approaches.
Establish a routine
This is oftentimes difficult when juggling doctors’ appointments and other activities, but maintaining a consistent routine benefits someone who is experiencing sundowning. When it comes to sleep, establish set times for going to bed and waking up, and try to prevent them from taking naps during the day. Many Alzheimer’s patients want to fall asleep and wake up whenever they feel like it, but establishing a routine will go a long way in preventing nighttime restlessness and them feeling tired in the morning.
A senior with Alzheimer’s or another serious form of dementia is not going to be able to participate in full-blown workouts, but you can engage them in other forms of light exercise. Taking daily walks outdoors is a great way to do so, as walking will improve their health, help promote restful sleep, and expose them to invigorating sunlight. And, as their caregiver, taking a walk will keep you feeling more refreshed too!
Create quieter evenings
Turn off the TV early in the evening, and play some peaceful and calming music instead. Try to further minimize noise and other distractions that will prevent your loved one from getting into a mindset that it’s time to go to sl