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Can the Change of Seasons Affect People with Dementia?

November 2, 2021

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Short, dreary days and long, cold nights are hallmarks of late fall, winter and early spring for most U.S. states. And months of that kind of weather can take a physical and mental toll on older adults in general. But the actual change of seasons themselves, especially as fall changes to winter, can have a particularly  negative effect on people with dementia.

Researchers are beginning to better understand how seasons affect people with dementia, with one study showing that memory and attention are negatively affected with the onset of both spring and winter. 

Another study of 3,400 older adults revealed that average cognitive functioning was better during summer and fall than during winter and spring. The difference was calculated to be the equivalent of 4.8 years of normal cognitive decline. In other words, the performance of people given memory and thinking tests in the summer and autumn would be equivalent to those 4.8 years younger than when tested in spring and winter.

There’s actually an emerging term used to describe this: seasonal sundowning. It’s connected with Sundown Syndrome,  which can be very common regardless of the time of year.

What Is Sundowner’s Syndrome?

Sundowning itself isn’t a disease; rather, it’s a set of symptoms that occur at a specific time of day and affect people with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.  Symptoms of sundowner’s syndrome include:

  • Anger, anxiety or fear
  • Agitation, pacing or restlessness
  • Confusion, disorientation, paranoia or hallucinations
  • Emotional outbursts, such as crying or aggressive behavior
  • Wandering, rocking or closely following caregivers 

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why sundowner’s syndrome happens, but one contributing factor of it could be the disruption of the body’s internal clock. Increased shadows and low lighting are also thought to be factors.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that as fall eases into winter, the effects and symptoms of sundowner’s syndrome become more pronounced, which is where the term “seasonal sundowner’s” comes from.

What Is Seasonal Sundowner’s Syndrome?

To understand how seasons affect people with dementia, think of how you feel each fall as the days get shorter. You may find yourself feeling irritated or more tired than usual, perhaps even a bit depressed. Every autumn most Americans “fall back,” turning their clocks back one hour to accommodate Daylight Saving Time. And for people with dementia, that loss of one hour of sunlight can significantly disrupt their natural circadian rhythm.

If you’re a caregiver for someone with dementia, you might notice a worsening of symptoms in the late afternoon hours, which is about the same time you may be feeling more tired or irritated, too. Even though you may not express out loud how you’re feeling, your loved one may be able to sense your nonverbal cues — which can worsen their sundowner’s as well.

We mentioned that an upset in the circadian rhythm, causing a biological mix-up between day and night, can bring on or worsen symptoms of sundowner’s syndrome. Other possible contributing factors include:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Changes in routine
  • Increase in noise
  • Reduced physical activity (this often happens when the days get colder, and it’s less enticing to walk outside)

But the good news is there are ways to help with sundowning. If you’re a caregiver, talk with your loved one’s doctor about which strategies might work best.

How to Help with Seasonal Sundowning

  1. Try to adhere to a regular routine. People with dementia often react to people and places that are unfamiliar to them. Try to stick to a regular schedule for things like waking up and eating breakfast; brushing teeth and bathing; eating lunch and taking a nap; having dinner and getting ready for bed. Make daily rituals like watching a certain TV program at the same time, or taking a walk down the same streets at the same time each day.
  2. Encourage regular activity. Physical activity can benefit people with dementia in several ways, especially when it comes to those who experience sundowner’s. Physical activity can tire the body, encouraging sleep. It can also help distract someone who is agitated or aggressive. Exercising outside can help reset the body’s internal clock, which is very helpful if the person with dementia is struggling to distinguish the time of day. 
  3. Keep track of triggers. When your loved one seems most agitated or confused, write down what contributed to that moment. Share what you’ve noticed with your loved one’s doctor, who may be able to recommend ways to lessen the agitation or confusion.
  4. Ask your loved one’s doctor about light therapy. Some studies have shown that light therapy can help reduce agitation and confusion in people with dementia. There are lighting products that mimic the rising and setting of the sun. And because evening’s shadows can confuse people with dementia, use night lights in the bathroom and bedroom, and keep other living spaces well lit. 

When is it Time to Consider Memory Care?

Caring for someone with dementia can be emotionally and physically difficult. At some point, it may be time to consider choosing a memory care community. Experienced, compassionate, and highly trained professionals at a memory care community like those operated by Franciscan Ministries can help your loved one at every stage of their dementia journey.

If you’re looking for a memory care community that’s right for your loved one, we’re here to assist you. Find a community near you or contact us today.