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Sundowning in Dementia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

8 minute readLast updated June 4, 2024
fact checkedon June 4, 2024
Written by Melissa Bean, senior living writer
Reviewed by Erin Martinez, Ph.D.Dr. Erin Martinez is an associate professor of gerontology and director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University, where she focuses on promoting optimal aging.
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Toward the end of the day, you may notice someone with dementia becoming noticeably more irritable, anxious, angry, and irrational. This change in behavior is called sundowning, also known as sundown syndrome or sundowner syndrome, and refers to late-day confusion or delirium. Because it can’t be easily attributed to a definite cause, it’s not considered a disease, but rather a set of symptoms associated with dementia. Sundowning in dementia patients is relatively common, as well. As many as 1 in 5 people with Alzheimer’s will experience sundowning, according to Cleveland Clinic.

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Key Takeaways

  1. Sundowning, or sundown syndrome, is common in people with dementia and refers to the onset of agitation, anger, sadness, confusion, paranoia, and other symptoms during sunset.
  2. The symptoms of sundowning may be subtle and inconsistent, so you may not notice the pattern right away.
  3. Sundowning can occur at any stage of dementia but is most common in middle to late stages.
  4. Sundown syndrome is not something your loved one can control, so consider talking to their doctor or memory care specialist for more involved support.

What are the symptoms of sundown syndrome?

The symptoms of sundowning may be subtle and easy to overlook. Considered a form of delirium, some of the most common symptoms of sundown syndrome may include:[01]

  • Rapid mood changes
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Agitation, restlessness, or pacing
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Stubbornness
  • Shadowing caregivers or others
  • Repeating questions and interrupting[02]

For some, symptoms of sundowning can be more severe and may include:[02]

  • Hallucinating
  • Hiding things
  • Feeling paranoid
  • Acting violently
  • Wandering

Sometimes symptoms might also be inconsistent. One evening your loved one may be a little more confused or weepy, while the next, they may seem slightly irritable. Signs may be minor and varying, so you may not notice a pattern right away.

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What are the causes or triggers of sundowning?

Sunset seems to be the only identifiable cause in some cases, as the twilight hours seem to directly aggravate dementia symptoms. However, researchers also suggest some other possible triggers to look out for during this time:[03,04,05,06]

  • End-of-day activity. A flurry of activity toward the end of the day — a dinner with unexpected guests and extra cleanup, for instance — may lead to anxiety and confusion.
  • Fatigue. Memory is weakened when we’re tired, and fatigue may make an evening bedtime routine seem extra complex. This could lead your loved one to lash out or become despondent.
  • Low light. As the sun sets, shadows increase, making it more difficult to see. Familiar surroundings may seem strange or appear to have been altered, and this may increase confusion and agitation.
  • Sensory impairment. A loss of hearing has been associated with a significant risk of dementia. Not being able to hear well could cause your loved one to be startled if they are not aware of your presence. This can lead to nervousness and heightened confusion as the day wears on and they grow more tired.
  • Internal imbalance. Hormonal changes or disruptions in the internal biological clock, which regulates cognition between waking and sleeping hours, may be a factor. The introduction or stopping of a medication, for instance, may prevent your loved one from sleeping a full night.
  • Winter. In some cases, winter’s shorter days may amplify or bring on sundowning. Waking up in the dark and experiencing an extended, dark evening can trigger confusion. Seasonal affective disorder, or depression associated with shorter days, may also make sundowning worse.

Sundowning without dementia

Seniors without a dementia diagnosis may also experience sundowning symptoms. Loss of brain mass due to aging may make an individual susceptible to confusion, disorientation, agitation, and other symptoms during twilight. Additionally, seniors experiencing delirium or sleep disturbances, or those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, may experience sundown syndrome.[07]

Can medication cause sundowning?

Yes. Side effects of some prescription and over-the-counter medications may cause rapid behavioral changes in people with dementia. Medications used to treat incontinence, allergies, depression, or insomnia should all be used cautiously as they may worsen sundowning symptoms.[08]

If your loved one is showing signs of sundowning, discuss all their medications and each one’s potential side effects with a doctor

What stage of dementia does sundowning usually begin?

Sundowner syndrome typically begins in the mid to late stages of dementia and lasts through the end stages, but it can present earlier for some individuals.[05] Every situation is unique, though, and the progression of dementia and sundowning varies from person to person.

How long can an episode of sundowning last?

Episodes of sundowning are temporary by definition because they generally occur during the late afternoon or evening. Episodes of sundowning may occur for a day or two, and then your loved one may not experience another episode for a while. It’s only when you notice a consistent pattern in behaviors at sundown over several days to weeks that sundown syndrome may develop.

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How to manage sundowner syndrome symptoms

Dementia care professionals suggest the following lifestyle adjustments to help alleviate the symptoms of sundowner syndrome:[01,06]

  • Establish a routine. Routines can help loved ones feel safe by minimizing surprises. Try not to schedule more than two major activities per day, as multiple events may feel overwhelming. Also, discourage napping, especially if your loved one has problems sleeping at night.
  • Monitor diet. Watch for patterns in behavior linked to certain foods. Avoid food or drinks containing caffeine or large amounts of sugar, especially late in the day. Avoid alcohol as much as possible.
  • Control noise. It can be helpful to reduce background noise from the TV, radio, and other entertainment devices in the late afternoon or early evening. Avoid having visitors come in the evening hours. Try playing soft, calming sounds or songs.
  • Let light in. Light boxes with full-spectrum lights (light therapy) have been found to lessen the effects of dementia and sundowning, particularly depression. As the evening approaches, keep rooms well-lit. This will also decrease the amount of shadows and help your loved one to see better, which helps avoid confusion and disorientation.

Keep in mind that sundowning is a group of symptoms, so there’s no single treatment that will make all those behavioral symptoms go away. That’s why it’s a good idea to apply all of the above lifestyle adjustments for the best results.

Are medications used for sundown syndrome?

Typically not. Most dementia care experts agree that medications should only be used to treat dementia-related behaviors after all other options have been tried. Additionally, sleep aids, antianxiety drugs, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics should especially be used with caution. Always be sure to discuss possible drug side effects with your loved one’s doctor.[07]

Sundowning and dementia: Coping and getting help

It’s important to remember that sundown syndrome isn’t something your loved one can control. They’re not purposely becoming agitated, angry, or afraid. Do your best to comfort them, but remember that you need support, too. Caregiver burnout is a real and serious risk.

If your loved one is currently experiencing an episode of sundown syndrome, remember the following:

  • Try to remain calm and avoid arguing. Instead, validate their feelings and let them know you’re listening.
  • Offer reassurance and let them know they’re safe and everything is OK.
  • Distract and redirect them to their favorite activities, such as listening to soothing music, having a snack, or going for a walk.[07]

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Call your loved one’s doctor if the signs become too frequent or difficult to manage. A doctor may be able to pinpoint additional triggers or offer different management techniques.

If you’d like to explore additional care options in your area, such as memory care, our Senior Living Advisors are available to help at no cost to you or your family.


  1. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, April 26). Sundown syndrome.

  2. Canevelli M., Valletta, M., Trebbastoni, A., Sarli, G., D’Antonio, F., Tariciotti, L., de Lena, C., and Bruno, G. (2016). Sundowning in dementia: Clinical relevance, pathophysiological determinants, and therapeutic approaches. Frontiers in Medicine.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2024). The hidden risks of hearing loss.

  4. Torres, F. (2024, March). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)American Psychiatric Association.

  5. Alzheimer’s Society UK. (2021, September 30). Sundowning and dementia.

  6. National Institute on Aging. (2017, May 17). Tips for coping with sundowning.

  7. Khachiyants, N., Trinkle, D., Son, S.J., and Kim, K. Y. (2011, December). Sundown syndrome in persons with dementia: An updatePsychiatry Investigation.

  8. National Institute on Aging. (2023, September 12). How is Alzheimer’s disease treated?

Meet the Author
Melissa Bean, senior living writer

Melissa Bean is a former veterans content specialist at A Place for Mom, where she crafted easy-to-understand articles about VA resources, senior care payment options, dementia caregiving, and more. Melissa pairs over a decade of writing experience with her time as a military spouse, during which she organized and led a multistate military family support group.

Edited by

Danny Szlauderbach

Reviewed by

Erin Martinez, Ph.D.

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