What is Sundowning Syndrome and How Does it Affect Seniors?

· 6 min read

In fall, most states will set their clocks back an hour and it will start to get darker earlier.

For some, this may seem like an effortless change and besides gaining an hour of sleep, it barely affects them. However, for seniors that suffer from Sundowning Syndrome, it can cause stress and anxiety not only for themselves but for their caregivers or loved ones as well.

Signs and Symptoms of Sundowning Syndrome and SAD

Sundowning Syndrome is when a person with dementia becomes irritable, angry, sad or anxious just before it gets dark. Thus, it can be a complicated time when it gets dark earlier, especially if he or she is unable to remember that the time change is coming. There are no known long-term affects of Sundowning Syndrome, as it is directly related to Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, short term effects include decreased satisfaction in personal relationships, fear of socializing past the afternoon, anxiety, sadness and depression.  During this time of year, elderly individuals may also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as ‘winter depression.’ For some individuals that suffer from Sundowning Syndrome, he or she may also experience SAD. Symptoms of SAD may include:

  • low energy
  • increase in the need or desire to sleep
  • the desire for more carbohydrates
  • weight gain

An individual with SAD may feel as though their symptoms worsen at night, thus playing into Sundowning Syndrome.

Although they are often linked to each other, it is important to note that just because someone suffers from SAD, does not mean that they necessarily have Sundowning, and vise versa.

Each case should be treated individually and should be addressed by a medical professional.

Tips for Reducing Sundowning Syndrome

Sundowning syndrome is complicated, as it is not seen as an illness but rather symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other dementias and can come on suddenly and the symptoms can be scary. Although the exact cause of Sundowning is unknown and it is no real ‘treatment’ that doctors are confident in, there are ways to mitigate the effects that Sundowning has on your life. The following tips can help you or your senior loved one with Sundowning Syndrome has an easier transition with the time change.

  • Make sure that you mark your calendar for the time change and that you are prepared in advance. Being prepared to accommodate Sundowning Syndrome will help eliminate any stress you may feel as well.
  • If possible, increase daily activities that will improve the chances that he or she will fall asleep early and not be affected by the dark as much.
  • Most people with Sundowning Syndrome get heightened anxiety from seeing the sky change from light to dark. Closing any curtains will help distract them from the light changing.
  • When the curtains are drawn, be sure to turn on lights inside their home so that they can see clearly and possibly have a nightlight for them in their bedroom.
  • Make sure that they eat early and eliminate caffeine late in the day, as that can cause them to stay up much later than normal.
  • Reassure them that everything will be okay. If your loved one has a heightened anxiety and stress due to the time change, comfort them and assure them that it will be okay.
  • Seek medical attention if there is a serious issue or complaint from loved one that will prevent them from sleeping or relaxing in the future or any prolonged period.

Benefits of Hiring a Caregiver

If you or your loved one experiences sundowning, you may benefit from hiring a caregiver. In addition to the services that 24 Hour Home Care’s caregivers provide to all their clients, they can also help clients with Sundowning Syndrome cope with the time change. By simply being there as a companion during sun-down time each day, they can give the client the reassurance and comfort he or she needs to get through the late afternoon to evening. During this time, caregivers can be there to explain to the client what they are feeling and validate their feelings of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. When the time changes, a patient with Sundowning Syndrome may feel alone and start to withdraw from their everyday tasks more than they would normally. A caregiver through 24 Hour Home Care can ensure that you or your loved one is taking their medication, eating properly, living in a clean home and is getting the care that he or she deserves.

A 24hr homecare caregiver woman helping an elderly woman by holding her arm and a drink

Although Sundowning Syndrome is a medical mystery, it is important to recognize it and know that there are ways to help your affected loved one.

Being prepared to help during the time change and knowing the ways in which you can eliminate anxiety is crucial.

If you or your loved one is experiencing Sundowning Syndrome and is looking for further resources, we highly encourage you to look into reaching out to the National Institute on Aging for more information. As always, medical professionals are the only individuals that can diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Sundowning Syndrome or Season Affective Disorder.  We hope that these tips help you be more prepared and can bring you and your senior loved one peace of mind.

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