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Sundowners Syndrome: 4 Keys to Help Your Loved One Overcome The Condition

Picture this: As the sun dips below the horizon, casting a warm glow across the room, your elderly loved one enters a unique phase of their day. Restlessness takes hold, and a once-familiar environment seems to shift into an unfamiliar landscape.

Your senior’s behavior transforms: agitation and confusion intertwine, casting shadows on their demeanor. Faces become masks difficult to recognize, and fleeting memories play hide-and-seek in the recesses of their mind.

Your loved one may start pacing back and forth, their footsteps echoing the rhythms of their racing thoughts. Conversations may become threads of fragmented sentences, woven with anxiety and urgency.

As the night deepens, a quiet unease can turn into restless wandering, an instinctive response to the disorientation that the setting sun is bringing to your elderly relative or friend.

Women feeling anxious and fearful during sunset, which is a typical Sundowners Syndrome symptom

That’s how a senior with Sundowners Syndrome might experience the latter hours of any day. In these moments, patience, compassion, and gentle guidance become beacons of light that can dramatically improve your loved one’s state of mind.

What Exactly is Sundowners Syndrome?

Sundowners Syndrome, medically known as “sundowning,” is a phenomenon associated with changes in memory and mental health. It often affects people—particularly the elderly—who have cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

It’s characterized by an increase in behavioral and psychological symptoms during the late afternoon and evening hours, typically as the sun begins to set.

While the exact cause of sundowning is not fully understood, it’s believed to be linked to disruptions in the internal body clock, sensory overload, fatigue, and hormonal imbalances, as well as the cognitive challenges associated with various types of dementia.

If your beloved senior experiences sundowning, they may display a range of symptoms such as:

  • Increased confusion
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Mood swings
  • Hallucinations
  • Wandering, and
  • Difficulty sleeping.

The shift from day to night can lead to them feeling very disoriented and unable to cope with their daily routine, potentially causing distress for your loved one, their caregivers, as well as family and friends.

Black senior man looking outside and feeling confused, which is one of several common sundowning behaviors

What Can You Do to Help Diminish Your Loved One’s Sundowners Syndrome

There are several things you can do to help your elderly loved one cope with and diminish Sundowner’s Syndrome. These are all very practical measures that are simple to do and can have a significant positive effect on your senior.

In all of the following, consult with healthcare providers or specialists experienced in elderly care. They can provide valuable insights and tailor strategies to your loved one’s needs.

Create a Structure for Your Loved One’s Day

Creating a structure for your senior with Sundowner’s Syndrome can provide stability, restore calm, reduce triggers, and reduce anxiety during the challenging evening hours. To do so, there are a few best practices that you can follow:

  • Setup a Consistent Schedule: Consistency helps regulate your loved one’s internal clock. Help them establish a daily routine with set wake-up and bedtime hours, and ensure meals, medication, and activities occur at roughly the same times each day.
  • Promote Natural Light Exposure: Sunlight helps regulate circadian rhythms and can reduce the severity of sundowning symptoms, so encourage your senior to receive natural light during the day. Going for a short walk or spending time in a well-lit room can be beneficial.
  • Wind-Down Activities: Engaging in relaxing activities can help your senior transition from the daytime hustle to a more peaceful evening. Motivate them to incorporate into their routine calming activities like reading, gentle stretching, meditating, or listening to cool music.

Senior woman meditating during the afternoon with relatives to manage Sundowners Syndrome dementia

Create a Soothing Environment for Your Senior

Making the environment conducive to relaxation as the evening progresses can make a significant difference because it signals the brain that it’s time to unwind. These are some factors that can help achieve that:

  • Soft Lighting: Soft, warm-toned lighting can create a peaceful ambiance and reduce sensory overload for your loved one. Gradually dim the lights in the evening to simulate the natural transition from day to night, and maintain a comfortable room temperature.
  • Familiar Surroundings: Familiarity and simplicity in the environment can reduce confusion and distress, so keep your loved one’s living space organized and avoid clutter.
  • Comfortable Space: Ensure your loved one’s living area is comfortable with cozy furniture and soft furnishings. Providing a comfortable chair or favorite blanket can also offer a sense of security.
  • Noise Reduction: Minimize noise disturbances by closing windows or using white noise machines. Gentle, instrumental music can also create a calming atmosphere for your elderly relative.
  • Safety Measures: Install nightlights in the bedroom, hallways, and bathroom to prevent falls and provide reassurance in case of nighttime awakenings.
  • Create a Relaxation Corner: Designate a quiet space where your senior can engage in calming activities like reading, knitting, or meditation. Ensure it’s well-lit and comfortable.
  • Personal Touch: Incorporate personal items, like family photos or familiar keepsakes, into your loved one’s surroundings. These reminders of cherished memories can give them comfort.
  • Engage in Familiar Activities: Invite your beloved senior to participate in activities they enjoy and that bring them comfort. Familiarity can help them have a sense of security.
  • Keep Open Communication: Maintain open and compassionate communication with your loved one. Reassure them that you are there to support them during moments of confusion or anxiety.

Elderly Latina woman being supported by her daughter during a sundowning episode | What causes Sundowners Syndrome

Encourage Healthy Sleep Habits

Healthier sleep habits can significantly improve your loved one’s overall mental state and, consequently, help them cope better with Sundowners Syndrome. Support your senior in having better sleep hygiene by doing the following:

  • Consistent Sleep Schedule: Help your loved one establish a regular sleep routine with set bedtime and wake-up times. Consistency reinforces the body’s internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up at the desired times.
  • Minimize Stimulants: Caffeine or sugar can disrupt sleep patterns and exacerbate agitation, so help your senior limit their intake in the afternoon. Opt for soothing herbal teas or decaffeinated options instead.
  • Limit Evening Naps: Discourage long naps in the late afternoon or early evening, as they can interfere with nighttime sleep and create a feeling of a “split” on your loved one’s day. Instead, encourage short, restful breaks earlier in the day.
  • Limit Screen Time: Help your senior reduce exposure to screens (TV, computer, tablet, and smartphone) at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from screens can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin, an important sleep-regulating hormone.
  • Physical Activity: Encourage your loved one to do regular physical activity during the day, which can promote better sleep at night. Gentle exercises like walking or stretching can be particularly helpful.
  • Develop a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Create a calming pre-sleep ritual that tells the body it’s time to wind down. This could include activities like reading, taking a warm bath, or listening to soothing music.
  • Comfortable Sleep Environment: Ensure your senior’s bedroom is conducive to sleep. The room should be dark and quiet enough and at a comfortable temperature. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows.

Elderly woman with an eye mask sleeping calmly | Vascular dementia sundowning

Medications and Medication Management

Several medications can interfere with your loved one’s natural body rhythms, increase anxiety, or contribute in other ways to the dissociative states that characterize Sundowners Syndrome. That’s why it’s important to create a medication plan that doesn’t increase sundowning symptoms.

Together with your senior and their doctors, plan a medication strategy that helps your loved one adjust better to the late hours of the day by taking advantage of these recommendations:

  • Medication Schedule: Establish a clear and consistent medication schedule for your loved one that aligns with their daily routine and that contributes to relaxing as the day
  • Medication Timing: Pay attention to when certain medications are administered. For example, if a medication has a sedating effect, it may be better administered in the evening to promote better sleep and reduce evening agitation.
  • Regular Communication: Maintain open communication with your senior’s healthcare providers regarding medication effects and any concerns. Be proactive in discussing alternatives or adjustments if necessary.
  • Minimize Polypharmacy: Work with your aging relative or friend’s doctors to minimize polypharmacy (taking multiple medications). Fewer medications with similar effects can reduce the risk of side effects and interactions.
  • Non-Pharmacological Approaches: Explore non-pharmacological approaches to managing Sundowner’s Syndrome, such as keeping a structured routine, ensuring exposure to natural light during the day, and all the others we have mentioned above.

Elderly women doing physical activity outside as part of their Sundowners Syndrome treatment

Amy’s Eden’s Can Be Your Loved One’s Ally Against Sundowner’s Syndrome

At Amy’s Eden, we know you’d do anything so that your loved one’s evenings can be peaceful and enjoyable, as well as the rest of their every day. We feel the same way and so, we want to be your trusted ally in giving your senior the best possible care.

We have 15 years of experience and a signature caregiving model that gives dedicated attention and support to each one of our seniors by our expert and loving caretakers.

Senior Asian man with Sundowners Syndrome sharing a joke with his caregiver | What are the early signs of sundowners

We offer caregiving for the elderly through a variety of services—from chronic condition care to dementia care, and many others—in the comfort of your loved one’s home or at one of our premium residences located in upscale neighborhoods in Reno and Carson City, NV.

Our caregivers are vetted, trained, and skillful in a variety of settings, and passionate about helping the elderly enjoy their golden years to the fullest. You can trust they will form an enduring bond with your loved one while they bring them comfort, support, and joy. Contact us today to get started.

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