Senior man sitting with female carer.

Daylight Savings Time and Sundowner’s Syndrome

March 13, 2020

While most of us appreciate the extra hour of sleep or sunlight that comes along with daylight savings time, there’s no doubt that the time change can temporarily confuse our internal clocks. For those living with dementia, the effects of daylight savings, coupled with sudden changes in daily routines, can be much more pronounced. This is even more true for the 20% of people with dementia who experience Sundowner’s Syndrome. Sundowner’s is a disorder with symptoms that include rapid mood changes, anger, crying, agitation, pacing, fear, depression, stubbornness, and restlessness. In its extreme form, Sundowner’s can also lead to wandering, paranoia, hallucinations, and hiding things.

While researchers have not pinpointed a specific neurological cause for Sundowner’s, they have identified common triggers for its symptoms, including:

  • Increased or Decreased Activity at the End of the Day. Some experts believe a flurry of early evening activity, such as the comings and goings of family members, can cause heightened confusion and stress. On the other hand, long stretches of inactivity that lead to boredom and restlessness can also contribute to these behaviors.
  • Fatigue. People with dementia can find processing information exhausting; this only builds as the day goes on, and can manifest in confusion, anger, and depression, among other symptoms.
  • Disruption of Circadian Rhythms. Doctors believe Sundowner’s sufferers may be especially prone to confusion when hours are added to or taken away from the day.

While there’s no clinical treatment for Sundowner’s Syndrome, there are steps caregivers can take to prevent or reduce its symptoms:

  • Limit Napping. Taking too many naps, one long nap, or napping too late in the day may make nighttime sleeping difficult. Napping does have benefits, though, so encourage one or two 20-minute snoozes in the earlier parts of the day.
  • Avoid Stimulating Foods and Activity. Starting in the late afternoon, avoid dietary and environmental stimulants, including sugar, caffeine, big meals, loud television or music, active children, and any bustling social activity.
  • Stick to a Routine. Regardless of time changes, maintain your loved one’s daily routine while sticking to regular meal and bedtimes. Keep any strenuous activity, like exercise and doctors’ visits, to earlier in the day. Avoid long stretches of inactivity between supper and bedtime.
  • Get Outside. During daytime hours, take your loved one outside for a walk or to run an errand. The exposure to sunlight will help regulate their circadian rhythms and promote nighttime sleep.

To learn more about Sundowner’s Syndrome and how to cope, head to the Alzheimer’s Association.