Sundowners syndrome, also known as sundowning, is a condition often associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, although a definitive connection has not been made. Sundowners syndrome can also be considered a mood disorder or even a sleep disorder. Sufferers experience periods of extreme agitation and confusion during the late afternoon or early evening hours, leading to irritability towards caregivers or hospital staff. It was once believed that sundowners syndrome was a result of missed day/night light cues, hence the sudden onset at sundown.
Caregivers and nursing home staff members can often anticipate an elderly patient’s bout of sundowners syndrome. A period of irrational thoughts and irritable behavior might begin after the last meal of the day and last until bedtime, for example. One theory concerning sundowners syndrome is that the constant daily mental processes for normal living can become overwhelming for the elderly during evening hours. They simply have too much incoming information and their restricted cognitive abilities become overloaded. The result is a period of irritability and negative thoughts.
There are other conditions which closely resemble sundowners syndrome, especially in unfamiliar hospital settings. Some elderly patients may become confused or irritable as a result of the anesthetics used during their surgeries. Others who spend time in the ICU or are connected to noisy medical equipment may experience a condition called hospital psychosis, which may also be especially noticeable during evening hours. But hospital psychosis can affect any age group, while sundowners syndrome is generally limited to the elderly population.
Dealing with a loved one suffering from sundowners syndrome can be very frustrating, but professional caregivers suggest several ways of coping with the confusion and irritability. Providing an area of complete privacy for the patient may allow him or her to process information away from visitors and other distractions. Pursuing quiet activities during the afternoon and early evening may encourage a better night’s rest. It may also help to keep in mind that the patient’s outbursts and bizarre demands are not always under their control. Sundowners syndrome is a real phenomenon for patients, so caregivers should exercise restraint when dealing with loved ones experiencing periods of confusion at night.