Daylight Saving Time and Dementia:

How the Time Change Affects Those Living with Dementia

We all love to gripe about the time change, especially when we “spring forward” and lose an hour of sleep to Daylight Saving Time, as we did this past weekend.  For most of us, the disruption is minimal – maybe a day or two of feeling sleepy or having trouble awakening at the earlier hour.

But for people living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, a time change can be quite disruptive, causing sleep disturbances or other issues.

If you are caring for someone living with dementia, you may see behavioral changes in the weeks and months ahead.

Effects of the Time Change

It’s just an hour’s difference, but sleep experts know that the change to daylight saving time disrupts our sleep schedule. That’s because a time change affects our natural circadian rhythms (the body’s time clock) and even the chemicals in our brains.

The effects are more pronounced in people with dementia. The change in the body’s time clock, combined with any disruptions in the daily routine due to the time change, can exacerbate confusion, agitation and other difficult behaviors for people living with dementia.

Sundowning syndrome

Many of our caregivers at Cambridge Caregivers notice an uptick in “sundowning” for days or even weeks after the time change.  Sundowning, or sundowning syndrome, is an increase in confusion and agitation that peaks in the late afternoon or early evening. An estimated one in five people living with dementia experience this syndrome.

Symptoms of sundowning may include:

  • Pacing and wandering
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Demanding behavior
  • Suspicion or paranoia
  • Aggressiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Hallucinations

How to Help

The best way to minimize sundowning, and difficult behavior in general, is to keep the person with dementia on a regular, familiar routine, as much as possible. Help them avoid sleep disrupters such as caffeine, alcohol, and naps during the day.

A walk outdoors during the day may also help. The combination of exercise and exposure to natural sunlight helps regulate the body’s natural rhythms and make it easier for the senior to fall asleep at nighttime.

Speaking Dementia

If you care for a person with dementia who becomes aggressive or agitated, learn some techniques to redirect or calm the person.

In a situation where the senior is uncooperative, try asking questions and offering choices, advises Matthew Grider, a Family Liaison with Senior Living Specialists in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Having worked in long-term care communities, Grider often assisted seniors who became resistant when it was time for a shower.  It’s a good example of how a caregiver might best communicate to enlist the cooperation of a person with dementia.

Matthew advises: “First and foremost, don’t ask them if they’re ready to take a shower. Because the answer’s going to be no most of the time.”

Instead, he says, ask questions that give the person a sense of choice and autonomy.  

“I’d ask the resident, ‘Is this water too hot or too cold?’ or ‘Do you want to wear this outfit, or that outfit, once you’re out of the shower?’” Grider said. “You kind of bypass the question of showering. So, they still feel like they’re in control, because you’re giving two positive choices. And it doesn’t matter which one they pick.”

Care for the Caregiver

Finally, if you’re a caregiver, the time change provides a good reminder to take stock of whether you’re taking care of yourself, advises Dr. Maudia L. Gentry, a Community & Human Services Leader-Educator-Trainer.

Caring for a person with dementia who is agitated, confused or combative can be exhausting. Sundowning occurs at the same you’re likely to be getting tired or impatient.

Make sure you’re getting adequate rest and sleep, Gentry advised. When you need a break, consider arranging for respite care, whether in your own home or an adult daycare center.

“I talk to many families that don’t even understand that whole concept about respite and how important it is along with self-care,” said Gentry. “Many family caregivers are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They need respite care for their own self-care.”

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