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Let's Talk About Sundowning


You may not be familiar with the term sundowning, also known as “late-day confusion.” Sundowning is a symptom of mid-stage to advanced dementia. It refers to the increase in confusion, restlessness and agitation a person living with dementia may experience late in the afternoon and evening.

Dementia Australia outline that it can be worse after a change in routine or move. The person living with dementia may become more demanding, upset, suspicious and disorientated. At night they may perhaps hear or see things that aren’t real, and in some cases, they may behave more impulsively – putting them at risk.

What is the reason for sundowning? Dementia Australia explains that sundowning may relate to the disruption of sleep patterns or lack of sensory stimulation after dark. At night, there are fewer cues in the environment, with the dim lights and the absence of noises from routine daytime activity. A person experiencing sundowning may be hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or needing to use the toilet, all of which they can only express through restlessness.

As the dementia progresses and they understand less about what is happening around them, they may become more frantic in trying to restore their sense of familiarity or security. Many families and carers say that the person becomes more anxious about “going home” or “finding mother” late in the day, which may indicate a need for security and protection. They may be trying to find an environment that is familiar to them, particularly a place that was familiar to them at an earlier time in their life.

Below are seven steps which can help to reduce the symptoms:

  1. Stick to the same schedule every day to help your loved one feel more calm and collected. Try to avoid making changes to routines that work for you both. If you need to make changes, try to adjust their routine gradually and as little as possible.

  2. Light up their life by switching on more lights in the evening. You could also switch to brighter bulbs.

  3. Keep your loved one active. Too much daytime dozing and inactivity can make it harder for your loved one to fall asleep at bedtime. This may cause fatigue which is a common trigger of sundowning. To promote a good night’s sleep, help them stay active during the day. Walking at your local park can be a great start.

  4. Adjusting their eating patterns. Large meals can increase their agitation and may keep them up at night, especially if they consume caffeine or alcohol. Encourage your loved one to avoid those substances or enjoy them at lunch. Limiting their evening food intake to a light meal might help them feel more comfortable and rest easier at night.

  5. Minimise their stress. Encourage calmness by sticking to simple activities that aren’t too challenging or frightening. Frustration and stress can add to their confusion and irritability. If they have mid-stage or advanced dementia, watching television or reading a book might be too difficult for them. Instead, consider playing soft music to create a calm and quiet environment. It might be a nice time for them to snuggle with a beloved cat or other pet.

  6. Provide comfort and familiarity. Help fill your loved one’s life and home with things they find comforting.

  7. Track their behaviour. Each person has different triggers for sundowning. Look for patterns to learn which activities or environments seem to make their symptoms worse. Once you know their triggers, it will be easier to avoid situations that promote agitation and confusion.

Caregivers of people experiencing sundowning need to take good care of themselves to avoid exhaustion. You may benefit from speaking to a GP about what support services are available to help you take time out. Our friendly Customer Support Team at Anglican Care can also discuss with you our relevant services such as respite care, dementia-specific day therapy centres and home care services. Sources: Dementia Australia and www.healthline.com

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