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Overnight Dementia Camp Provides Caregivers Reprieve From Sundowning

By Dana LarsenOctober 17, 2012
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Many caregivers who deal with sundowning—or nightly confusion, fear and hallucinations in dementia sufferers—agree it’s the most difficult part of their caregivng role. Lack of sleep is not good for anyone. And when loved ones who suffer from dementia won’t sleep at night, the caregiver also suffers. Well one dementia program, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale called ElderServe at Night in New York, allows caregivers a much-needed break from the nightly raucous.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the option to choose sleep over yet another difficult night of dealing with a loved one who suffers from Sundowner’s Syndrome? Well caregivers in New York now have a dementia “night camp” that allows caregivers a night of sleep and rejuvenation. As a mother of a 2-year-old who is also expecting another baby, I am familiar with the negative effect lack of sleep can have on one’s mental and physical well-being. But many American’s don’t expect to go through the caregiving sleepless nights with their aging loved ones when they, themselves, are also aging and have less energy than in their younger years.

In fact, my mom jokes with me, “If I had to run off the amount of sleep you get each night, it would kill me.” She says this in a truthful jest as she has raised four kids and now enjoys well-deserved relaxation and full nights’ sleep. Her mid-60’s body requires 8 hours of sleep these days. She needs the sleep to stay healthy and function at work. In fact, when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Sundowner’s Syndrome, my mom decided it was in everyone’s best interest to find memory care for my grandmother with frequent visits from family. After all, she knew what she could and couldn’t handle.

But many Americans my mom’s age are caregivers struggling through each night as they deal with the symptoms of Sundowning: their loved ones’ anxiousness, wandering and combative behavior, to name a few. This is when dementia camp can be a godsend.

Dementia Camp: What Is It?

Most elderly people are either asleep or in the process of going to sleep come 10:00 pm, but at dementia camp, elderly dementia sufferers are “just getting started,” according to ElderServe at night. There’s dancing and activities such as movies, strolls through the hallways and quiet rooms with simple puzzles and tactile sensations—such as sand or water being poured over their hands to stimulate sensations and memories. All kinds of things to keep the Sundowner’s sufferers engaged and happy.

“Without this program, my father would be lost, and I would be crazy,” said Robert Garcia, whose 82-year-old father, Felix, is in the program. “He doesn’t sleep. At night he’s wide awake and needs activity.”

Many families suffer from a loved one’s disruption, not just the main caregiver. For example, sandwich generation caregivers—or those who care for both their aging loved ones as well as their children still living at home—have a whole household to upset. For example, Garcia’s family, who lives in a Bronx apartment with his wife and three children was constantly awakened by Felix’s nightly antics. “We would all wake up, and my daughter would ask, ‘Why is Grandpa screaming? Why is he so grumpy?'” Garcia remembers.

The Hebrew Home at Riverdale ElderServe Night is a blessing for the Garcia family, and many others in the New York neighborhood. “Now he comes home in the morning, shows me his drawings, tells me what they did all night,” says Robert.

How is Dementia Camp Different From Respite Care?

Many nursing homes or memory care communities offer respite care, a short-term stay that allows caregivers a few days to go on vacation or take a break. But the overnight-only stay is definitely a niche service in senior care. It’s not cheap, but can definitely be worth it for a caregiving break. And most patients’ care is covered by Medicaid. At $140 a night, plus $74 for transportation to the community, many families are happy to pay the fee.

Dr. Robert Abrams, a geriatric psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said sleep problems are typical in dementia with sundowning’s stimulation of confusion and fear in the sufferer. At the Hebrew Home, shades are kept closed and patients are allowed to go off their own circadian rhythm.

Abrams says an overnight activity program like the Hebrew Home’s is preferable to “fighting nature by insisting that participants try to sleep.”

What do you think about overnight dementia camp? Do you think these types of care will become more prevalent as the baby boomer population ages exponentially? Feel free to share your comments below. Also, if you don’t have the option to give your loved one a ‘sleepover party’ with other Sundowners, here are 4 Ways to Soothe Sundowner’s Symptoms.

Read this post’s inspiration from The Wall Street Journal.

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Dana Larsen