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What is Sundowning?

Sundowning is a term that is very appropriately named. As people age and physical health declines, cognitive ability also declines. Symptoms of memory loss associated with forms of dementia are common in the elderly. Many people who suffer from dementia-type illnesses have these symptoms regularly. However, they can get increasingly worse in the late afternoon and evening times which is referred to as sundowning.  If there is a noticeable change in behavior as the sun starts to set, it is likely that the person is experiencing the sundowning effect. 

Symptoms of sundowning include: 

  • Agitation
  • Hallucination
  • Wandering
  • Confusion
  • Ignoring
  • Mood Swings
  • Anxiety
  • Increased Energy

What Causes Sundowning

There is no one answer to this question. However, many researchers cite circadian rhythms as an explanation for the behaviors. Environmental factors such as loss of light and increase in shadows in the evening are other natural causes of sundowning. 

At any age and at any level of mental capacity, sleep is of utmost importance. Any time we are sleep-deprived, our mental and physical health is directly affected. 

For someone who already struggles with mental instability, over tiredness can lead to less than pleasant side effects. 

Some symptoms of memory loss and dementia disrupt the biological clock. If the biological clock is not working properly it interferes with natural sleep-wake cycles.

Ways to Prevent Sundowning

There is no proven way to absolutely prevent sundowning from occurring, but there are a few ideas that try to solve the root of the problem. Examples of these include the following. 


Maintaining a regular schedule can work wonders for sustaining a regular biological clock. Humans are creatures of habit and will thrive better with a consistent schedule. It can also help prevent agitation and confusion, which are common symptoms of memory loss, by having more predictability day-to-day. 


Adjusting the amount of light in the home will help regulate the sleep-wake cycles. Bright daytime bulbs are great for those winter months when there is little light during the day. Room darkening shades or curtains are also a necessity for controlling excessive amounts of light in the summertime. Controlling light also helps the individual distinguish what time of the day it is regardless of the season. 


It is not just children that are heavily affected by sugar and caffeine. We may become less aware of it as we get older, but these things in our diet still influence our system the same way. For those who are suffering from dementia, it is especially important to monitor caffeine intake in the evening. Alcohol close to bedtime also contributes in a negative way. While it is not necessary to cut these substances out completely, they should be avoided later in the day. 


Evenings should consist of calm, relaxing activities. Even watching television can be too stimulating for someone suffering from dementia. Cuddling with a pet, listening to a favorite soundtrack, or easy hobbies like knitting are a few good ideas for relaxing evening activities. In regards to stress, a caregiver’s stress levels are usually increased at the end of the day and this can rub off on the sundowner in a negative way. 


Elderly people are known to spend an excessive amount of time sleeping during the day. This is not good for quality sleep at night. An appropriate amount of exercise during the day will help keep them awake and make them more tired and ready for bed when the time comes. Going for a short walk once a day should be enough physical activity to not only decrease stress but also increase physical health. 

What to Do When Someone Experiences Sundowning

Your reaction to the situation will directly impact how much the negative behavior escalates. The most important thing will be for you to remain calm and reassuring in the process. 

If you are new to caring for someone who is sundowning, take notes of what days, times, and activities trigger the behaviors. After a while, you can hopefully identify regular triggers and avoid them if at all possible. 

Consulting with a doctor may lead to medication that could be used as a bandaid during especially tough situations. Along with pharmaceutical help, a sleep aid may be prescribed.  

If the sundowner is simply up wandering or having a bout of energy, you can calmly remind them of the time as they may not be aware. 

Regardless of the situation, make it a priority for the person to know they are safe, secure, and that you are willing to help them however possible. 

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