Share this page
What is sundowning? Get to know the signs AND how to help
People with dementia may become more confused, restless or irritable late in the afternoon or early evening – this is commonly known as ‘sundowning’.
Clients can experience agitation, insecurity or disorientation; they may become demanding or suspicious – or more impulsive, as their attention span drops and they start making unusual or even risky decisions.
It’s not 100% clear what causes sundowning, although it seems to result from changes occurring in the brain.
Because it usually occurs in the afternoon, it’s often thought that it may also be related to tiredness or the fading light, which makes it harder for a person with dementia to perceive their environment.
What to look for
A person experiencing sundowning, may be:
Everyone will experience their dementia differently, so it may take some time to find the best way to help your loved one through this part of the day. Try our top tips below, or talk to your care providers for other ideas.
Many of the feelings experienced during sundowning are related to a sense of panic because the person with dementia understand less of what is happening around them. So it’s important to stay calm – even if their behaviour seems unreasonable.
Start by gently redirecting their attention to favourite activities, foods, animals or people that calm them down. They may also be soothed by talking a walk, having a warm drink or telling stories.
Once you have their attention, ask them to try to explain what is distracting them, and check that they’re not hungry or dehydrated.
If you do feel frustrated, remember these two things:
Often, people who are sundowning are just trying to restore a sense of familiarity around them. One of the best ways to deal with it is to have a routine.
Routines help people feel safe and comfortable. Look for early evening activities that are familiar to your loved one – sometimes something from earlier in their life is helpful – and can help them relax.
Your sundowning routine may also include an afternoon nap to help manage fatigue in the later part of the day. Plan more activity in the morning, and encourage rest after lunch.
Our senses are intrinsically linked to our brain, and creating familiar links can help reassure people when they’re feeling confused.
Touch: Some people are comforted by plush toys or different material textures, while others may respond well to a hand massage.
Having familiar items around can also help to spark memories and combat restlessness; listening to their favourite music or audio tape, may support the person to relax and feel comforted.
Sound: Some people might respond well to music or singing, but with sundowning often turning off music and the tv will help them to regain focus.
Sight: To help with disorientation, extra lighting may help. Use a blue tinted globe to simulate daylight. To encourage good sleep patterns later in the evening, switch to a low, warm light.
Smell: Your garden can provide a positive sensory experience. Planting familiar flowers and scented plants such as lavender and citrus trees can help provide a sense of familiarity and comfort. If there’s room, a looping path will encourage them to experience the space.
Did you know?: Many of our social centres have sensory gardens available for clients with dementia to enjoy, with shaded seated areas where people can sit with their friends to chat. Our Rockingham Centre even has a café where the clients can work, and which sells produce grown and made at the centre!
Caring for someone living with dementia can be challenging, physically and emotionally, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help.
You can also talk to your doctor about changes in your loved one’s behaviour, or to discuss their medication options.
The Dementia Australia website has lots of resources available to help you understand and live with dementia.