When acting as the primary caregiver for an aging family member, you may have noticed signs or symptoms of sundown syndrome, when an elderly person with cognitive impairment or dementia gets unreasonably upset as night falls. Let's explore some things that you may do in order to minimize the severity and/or frequency of sundown syndrome episodes. By taking proactive steps to minimize triggers, you can help ensure that your loved one enjoys a quiet, peaceful evening free from the anxiety and confusion that often precedes episodes of sundown syndrome.
Possible ways to minimize the severity of sundown syndrome: reducing anxiety
Sometimes elderly people who suffer from sundown syndrome simply are confused. This confusion can lead to agitation; to head this off it may be beneficial to explore ways to help the elderly person to resolve his confusion.
For example, in St. Louis, Missouri, a professor of geriatrics was summoned to assist in a case where an elderly man kept calling the police, claiming that robbers were in his house. Upon examination, the professor discovered the source of the problem: the setting sun was casting shadows from the man's potted plants across his walls. Because the man could not see well, he thought the shadows were people coming in to rob him.
The professor taught the man to take his cane and brush away the shadows. When he did this, he was able to understand that they were not real people, and his calls to the police stopped. This solution demonstrates the effectiveness of talking with the person who is suffering from sundown syndrome and trying to determine the source of his or her confusion or anxiety. Sometimes you can develop a simple solution that will help him or her to understand what is going on; by easing the confusion, you will eliminate the anxiety that often accompanies it.
Overall, anxiety contributes to episodes of sundown syndrome. To combat this you may use something as simple as the elderly person's sense of touch. Try sitting and holding his or her hand for a few minutes when it seems that he or she is becoming most agitated. A five-minute hand massage or simply sitting with your hand resting on his or her arm can sometimes work wonders in reducing anxiety.
If your elderly loved one seems to be overly stressed by the commotion going on around him or her, consider relocating him or her to a quieter area of the building. You may want to consider setting up a "quiet room" and have a gentle background noise such as waves or rainfall playing in the background of the room.
Overall, anxiety contributes to episodes of sundown syndrome.
Let there be light
Another possible way to minimize an episode of sundown syndrome is to turn on fluorescent lighting near your elderly loved one. The human body reacts to light by adjusting its internal clock. By using a light that mimics the sun's rays you can help the elderly person's body to reset its internal clock back to the correct settings. (Note that for this solution to be most effective you may want to use a light that mimics the sun's rays; if you do this, you will need to closely supervise the elderly person to prevent overexposure to UV rays.)
While you cannot "cure" sundown syndrome, there are certainly things that you can do in order to minimize the severity of episodes, especially by reducing anxiety. Carefully monitor your elderly loved one and see if you can detect sources of anxiety and resolve them. Don't forget the comforting powers of human touch and lots of light.
Aplaceformom.com (website). Sundowners Syndrome: Triggers & Management. May 7, 2015. Available at http://www.aplaceformom.com/senior-care-resources/articles/sundowners-syndrome. Last visited November 20, 2015.
Udesky, Laurie. Sundown Syndrome. Available at https://www.caring.com/articles/sundown-syndrome. Last visited November 20, 2015.