Sundowning is not a form of dementia, nor a disease. Sundowning is an amalgamation of symptoms that cause behavioral problems. They are brought on by a specific time of day – usually sundown (hence sundowning) – and effect people with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia.

What are the Behavioral Problems Associated with Dementia Sundowning?

Typically, they exhibit feelings of frustration, confusion, aggression, and high anxiety.

Why Does Sundowning Cause These Effects?

There’s no easy explanation. Doctors have discovered that dementia sundowning occurs when there’s low lighting and the shadows start to spread across their room or environment. They’ve also connected it to a lack of sleep and some elders struggle to understand if they’re awake or still dreaming.

More recent studies have theorized that dementia sundowning occurs due to the interruptions in elders’ Circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is any form of internal clock – more or less – and of course, our sleep cycle falls into that category. When elders cannot differentiate when or what time to sleep, their Circadian rhythm is thrown off.

It’s natural for people to get sleepier during the night because our bodies have adjusted to associate “dark” lighting with sleepy time. However, our sleep cycle, like many of our Circadian rhythms are maintained in our brains and because dementia effects the brain with plaques and tangles, that cycle can be thrown off.

It’s not definite, but it seems very plausible that interrupted sleep is causing this problem.

How do you Treat Dementia Sundowning?

While there is no cure, there is strong evidence to support that sundowning is caused due to interrupted sleep habits. As a result, there are several types of treatments that seem to lessen the effects of sundowning.

  • For one, exercise can help tire a patient out during the day, thereby making them more susceptible to sleep at night.
  • Secondly, many elders take naps throughout the day and over-napping can result in dementia sundowning as they’re not sleepy when it’s time for bed.
  • Third, regular routines help their body to regulate their internal clock, so even if the activities change, keeping the same time for meals and events can help their rhythm.
  • Fourth, limit the caffeine intake! Many Alzheimer’s and dementia patients take/drink caffeine because it is a mental stimulant – which is good! However, if they’re taking too much of it, then they may be keeping themselves awake into the wee hours of the night. In general, it’s best to drink caffeine BEFORE noon and stop.
  • Fifth, reduce electronic use before sleeping. Even if watching television appears to be relaxing, if you and your loved one watch television or are on a computer before bed, your brain is still very active, so don’t use electronics an hour or two before bed.

Lastly, familiarity helps lessen the effects of sundowning. If your elder has just moved into a senior housing facility, then bringing frames, photographs, and/or furniture can help the sundowning effects. It’s also why many nursing homes encourage you to bring your senior’s personal belongings to their new room.

Of course, there’s an over-the-counter medication called melatonin and that increases the dose of a natural occurring hormone (i.e. melatonin) so that you or your elder can sleep. THAT BEING SAID, moderation is important! Consistent use of melatonin can be VERY harmful, so it’s better if it’s prescribed or with a doctor’s advice on when to take it.