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Understanding Sundowner’s Syndrome

If your loved one is in the mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of memory loss, you may have noticed something peculiar. They may wake up alert and lucid but, as the day goes on, things seem to change. By the time dinner comes around, they may become nonverbal, hostile or increasingly confused. You may be unsure what’s happening, or what you can do to help. You’re not alone.

Sundowner’s Syndrome, also known as sundowning, is a pronounced, daily behavioral change experienced by many seniors with dementia. Usually occurring around the early evening hours when the sun begins to set, sundowning is marked by a significant shift toward negative moods, impaired awareness and increased cognitive difficulties. Though it could pose a serious risk to your loved one’s health, understanding Sundowner’s Syndrome can help you take steps to keep them safe.

The Causes of Sundowning

Unfortunately, scientists aren’t entirely certain why Sundowner’s Syndrome occurs. One prevailing theory suggests that sundowning is the result of our bodies’ natural circadian rhythm – the mechanism that lets us know when it’s time to go to sleep or when we should be awake, alert and active. Seniors with dementia may have an imbalance of hormones and other brain receptors intended to regulate wakefulness (like melatonin), leading to a profound unease or agitation. Others suggest that sundowning occurs as the natural result of fatigue and overstimulation throughout the day.

Symptoms of Sundowner’s Syndrome

When a senior is sundowning, their chronic dementia symptoms go into overdrive. They may “shadow” their caregiver, imitating their actions and words. While many symptoms are simply heightened versions of already extant dementia-related behaviors, others – like insomnia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and paranoia – are intimately linked with the late-day decline of Sundowner’s Syndrome. Additionally, sundowning seniors may ask repetitive or nonsensical questions, lose their ability to communicate coherently or understand abstract concepts, and may engage in disruptive, emotional outbursts.

Controlling Risk Factors: 5 Things You Can Do

Now that you have a little more background on the nature of Sundowner’s Syndrome, here are a few ways to mitigate the risk of an episode:

  • Turn the lights on. Though the reasons aren’t entirely clear, seniors with dementia often experience a spike in visual hallucinations, anxiety, confusion and discomfort around dusk. Low lighting can induce feelings of paranoia and fear in a neurotypical person, and this effect is magnified during a sundowning episode. Eliminating shadows by turning on bright, room-filling light can help alleviate this discomfort.
  • Keep sleep regular. If your loved one is having trouble maintaining an appropriate sleep schedule, encourage them to avoid napping after noontime. This will help prepare the body for sleep when the sun goes down, making the worst parts of sundowning much more manageable for caregivers. Plus, getting more sleep is shown to reduce the frequency of episodes.
  • Soothing sights and sounds. Playing relaxing music or ambient sounds can help put your loved one in a relaxed state of mind. You might also put on a familiar, calming television program – but avoid intense dramas, horror or action films, as loud sounds and violence can worsen negative emotions.
  • Avoid overstimulation. Near the end of the day, a senior who experiences Sundowner’s Syndrome is especially vulnerable to overstimulation, aggravation and impatience. Generally speaking, they’ll mirror the mood of the room – having loud conversations, lots of people or hyperactive children around can be a trigger for the worst symptoms.
  • Stay engaged. Even a simple activity, like folding laundry, can do a lot to take your loved one’s mind off of any anxiety, confusion or disorientation. While you should allow them to engage in behaviors like pacing or repetition, gently directing them toward an easily accomplished task can work wonders.

Follow this link for more ways you can reduce the effects and frequency of Sundowner’s Syndrome.

Consider Seeking Additional Support

Like most family caregivers, you likely lead a busy life filled with commitments to other family members, work and normal daily living. That can make it a lot more difficult to cope with the stresses of looking after an aging parent or other loved ones. Compounding the issue is the fact that Sundowner’s Syndrome often makes it harder for the whole family to sleep – and lack of sleep only exacerbates the severity of sundowning symptoms.

You and your family deserve an extra layer of support. As a leading provider of quality memory care across the nation, Eagle Senior Living is here to help. Reach out to us for more information on caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other forms of memory loss. We’ll share more tactics and tips you can use, along with details on the unique support our communities provide.