What Is Sundown Syndrome?

Sundown syndrome, also known as “sundowning,” is a phenomenon associated with Alzheimer’s disease whereby sufferers seemingly get worse with the fading light. It is one of the many challenges that caregivers face when dealing with Alzheimer’s patients, and while it can’t be prevented, there are ways of making it more manageable.

What is Sundown Syndrome?

Changing times and seasons are known to affect mood and have been linked to a host of disorders, including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), whereby feelings of hopelessness and depression are tied to seasonal changes.

The body has an internal clock, and this clock is carefully regulated by hormones. Melatonin, for instance, is released by the pineal gland to encourage sleep, while the growth hormone is released during the night to promote growth and repair.

Many doctors believe that this internal clock is what causes the symptoms of sundown syndrome. However, as with a few other aspects of Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a lot we don’t know.

The decreasing light can impact an individual in other ways, as well. It casts more shadows, creates more confusion, and plays havoc with the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient.

How Common is Sundowning?

Around 20% of Alzheimer’s patients will suffer from sundowning. It can also occur in elderly people who don’t have dementia but may suffer from bouts of paranoia, depression, and other mental health conditions.

Generally, people change during the evening hours. They may become mellower. They may grow scared of the dark, paranoid of shadows, and worried that someone is lurking behind windows and doors. For an elderly person who is frailer and more vulnerable, those fears can become intense.

What are the Symptoms of Sundown Syndrome?

In the “sundowning” state, an individual may present with the following symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Yelling
  • Hallucinations
  • Mood swings
  • Suspicion
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability

How to Prevent Sundown Syndrome

Imagine that you have a fearful child who is more prone to paranoia, scared of the dark, and has a wild imagination. If they get it into their head that there is a monster lurking somewhere, it’s hard to change their mind, and it’s better to prevent those issues from occurring in the first place.

For instance, you can make sure they don’t watch scary films, read scary books, and spend too long in the dark. They will have their triggers. You simply need to find them and remove them.

It’s a similar story with sundown syndrome.

Those triggers may include certain noises or areas of the home. In many cases, it’s because the house is dimly lit and shadows are being cast.

Tiredness and sleep disturbances are also a leading cause, and it’s important to make sure they get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Stimulate their mind and keep it active during the night, avoid big meals, caffeine, and alcohol, and ensure the house is properly lit. 

Boredom, depression, hunger, thirst, and chronic pain may also trigger sundowning, so ensure they are properly nourished and that they are taking their medications.

Look After Yourself

Sundown syndrome takes its toll on caregivers. They devote most of their time and energy to meeting the needs of the care recipient and have very little leftover for themselves.

If you’re struggling with those basic care needs, consult with their doctor and ask about medications and other treatments. As noted above, there is no way to cure it, and while you can reduce the chances of it appearing, there’s no guarantee.

Use care respite services, speak with family members, and join online and offline support groups. The help is there when you need it, and while it might not fix the problem, it will certainly make it easier to deal with.