It is thought that sundowning can be a problem for as many as 66% of people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. It can occur at any stage of the disease but it tends to peak in the middle stages of dementia and lessens as the disease progresses.
Sundowning often affects the person’s quality of life and it can be exhausting for the caregiver. The person living with dementia may become suspicious, upset or disorientated, see or hear things that are not there and believe things that are not true.
Behaviours associated with sundowning
Some behaviours are typical with sundowning. They include:
- Becoming demanding or aggressive
- Experiencing delusions and hallucinations. Learn more about delusions and hallucinations.
- Pacing or wandering
- Doing impulsive things
- Attempting to leave home
- Having difficulty understanding others
- Having difficulty doing tasks that were done without difficulty earlier in the day
A variety of events or issues can trigger sundowning. These include:
- Being tired at the end of day (can lead to an inability to cope with stress)
- Low lighting and more shadows (can create confusion and hallucinations, especially with common objects that look different when it is darker)
- Disruption of the Circadian cycle (sleep/wake pattern) because of the dementia (the person cannot distinguish day from night)
- Not as much or no activity in the afternoon compared to the morning (can lead to restlessness later in the day)
Tips and strategies
Finding a way to respond to sundowning may take some trial and error. Every person is different and may react differently. Some ways to try to head off a sundowning episode or to lessen it once it has started are:
- Discourage napping or keep naps short.
- Ask recreation staff to schedule calming activities when agitation usually occurs.
- Work with staff to restrict sweets and avoid caffeine at night.
- Provide adequate lighting to help him identify objects and people.
- Provide items of comfort like a favourite pillow or blanket.
- Plan and encourage activities during the day.
- Provide reassurance and reminisce as a distraction.
After a short visit, Hannah struggles to maintain a conversation with her daughter. She becomes upset, paces in her room and says “I want to get out of here NOW”. Her daughter notes that her mom experienced similar distress yesterday and the day before around 4:30pm, as she arrives for a visit after work.
- Request that Hannah is prescribed a medication to calm her, which results in her sleeping much of the day.
- As late afternoon approaches, turn on bedroom lights and lamps.
- Close drapes to lessen shadows.
- Request a morning exercise program to reduce restlessness in the afternoon.
- Consult with staff for strategies that provide a sense of purpose, like setting the dining room tables or putting vases out for that evening’s meal.
- Visit in the morning.
Shifting focus: Guide to understanding dementia behaviour
This booklet is meant to help family members, friends and caregivers of people with dementia understand behaviours and actions.
It provides information about the following:
- Brain and dementia
- Recognizing and understanding the person’s actions and behaviours
- Supportive strategies