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Sundown Syndrome in the Elderly: Symptoms and Support

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Sundown Syndrome in the Elderly: Symptoms and Support
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Sundown Syndrome in the Elderly: Symptoms and Support

October 01, 2021

If your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you know that their personalities, likes, dislikes, and moods can change seemingly without warning. But certain times of day can cause behavioral changes more often than others. Most often, seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia experience these shifts at sundown, resulting in what’s commonly called sundown syndrome. 

an elderly woman looking forlornly out the window

What Is Sundown Syndrome?

Sundown syndrome is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia rather than a stand-alone syndrome. It refers to a change in mood that typically occurs late in the day or evening once daily activities start to wind down. Most often, sundown syndrome impacts those with late-stage Alzheimer’s or advanced dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

Common Sundowners Syndrome Symptoms

According to research published by the National Institutes of Health, sundown syndrome symptoms are prevalent in up to 85 percent of people with dementia. There are a few common symptoms that people tend to experience when they’re impacted by sundown syndrome. These include:

  • Sudden changes in mood
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Enhanced stubbornness
  • Hallucinations
  • Feelings of paranoia
  • Violent outbursts

If your loved one is experiencing these symptoms in the evening hours, they may have sundown syndrome. But if these symptoms persist throughout the day, they’re likely a result or symptom of ongoing dementia rather than sundown syndrome specifically. If you’re not sure, the best thing you can do is to consult with your loved one’s primary care physician.

What Triggers Sundowning?

Sundown syndrome is caused by Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but there are a few things that can end up triggering sundown syndrome symptoms in older people:

  • General fatigue and exhaustion
  • Low light levels
  • Seasonal changes
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Nighttime routines

These are just a few of the most common triggers. Your loved one may respond to different triggers or be impacted by various things at different times throughout the year.

5 Ways to Help Your Loved One Cope with Sundown Syndrome

Though there is no cure for sundown syndrome, there are things you can do to help your loved one maintain a better, more stable mood regardless of the time of day. Keep in mind that some of these suggestions may work better than others. You may need to experiment and see what works for your loved one and what makes the most sense long-term.

1. Invest in Full-Spectrum Lighting

If you believe your loved one is experiencing sundown syndrome due to changing seasons, adding a few full-spectrum light bulbs to their lamps and light fixtures may help. These lights mimic sunlight and provide clear, crisp light throughout the space, making it easier for your loved one to see even when the sun sets. This can help reduce feelings of anxiety and confusion. 

2. Discuss Your Concerns with Their Doctor

Sometimes, medications can trigger symptoms of sundown syndrome or make them worse over time. If you think your loved one is experiencing the syndrome, let their doctor know as soon as possible. They’ll be able to review the medications your loved one is currently taking and see if any alternatives might make symptoms more bearable. 

3. Find Ways to Cut Back on Noise

Noise — even quiet background noise from things like televisions and radios — can make it hard for your loved one to wind down at the end of the day. Find ways to help them reduce the amount of noise they’re exposed to late in the evening. Give them access to quiet hobbies and activities like reading, puzzles, word games or listening to soothing music. This will help send signals to their bodies that it’s time to start relaxing and getting ready for bed instead of processing information that can lead to confusion and anxiety. 

4. Create a Routine They Can Follow

Sticking to a routine can help alleviate sundown syndrome. Find ways to help your loved one stick to that routine each day. For example, if you tend to call your loved one every day, do so at the same time. Make sure their medications are administered at the same time each night and avoid scheduling events or activities that disrupt that routine whenever possible. 

5. Look at Their Sleep Situation

Sundown syndrome can often be made worse by inadequate or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. If you can, inspect their bedroom and look for possible causes of disruption like exterior lights, strange noises, old and uncomfortable mattresses and anything else that might make it difficult for your loved one to sleep well each night. Often, updating their mattress and adding curtains to block light from outside can be enough to make sleep easier and more restful. 

Can an Assisted Living Community Help?

If your loved one is suffering from senior sundown syndrome, moving them to an assisted living community can help reduce the severity of their symptoms. The community is built with seniors in mind and provides meaningful activities that can reduce agitation common to sundown syndrome. In addition, one of the biggest benefits seniors experience when moving into an assisted living community is that routines are easier to implement and maintain. Routines can often help alleviate sundown syndrome symptoms.

The best way to find a community that will work for your loved one’s needs and one that can provide appropriate levels of care is to be upfront about your loved one’s unique needs. At Elmcroft, our team is adept at helping seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia live the highest quality of life possible. We offer enriching activities, comfortable living quarters and a thriving community that your loved one will enjoy being a part of. Schedule a tour today or contact us to discuss which options will work best for your loved one.

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