Daylight Saving Time in the United States was first established in 1918, and more than 100 years later, nearly all of the country still springs forward and falls back every year. While many enjoy the later wake-up time after the fall change, that shift can more dramatically affect seniors—especially those with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Nov. 6 marks the day we’ll fall back one hour to standard time, and some older adults need help adjusting to that change in their sleep schedule and to the reduced winter daylight.
Shifting sleep schedules affect everyone to some degree. Our bodies have a natural circadian rhythm, and disrupting that – even by one hour – requires some adjusting.
Amada Senior Care, an assisted living provider, offers some simple steps to help smooth the transition:
- Establish a schedule with your older adult and stick to it.
- Adjust to the time change in small increments: Dinner and bedtime, for example, can be 15 minutes later for a couple of days. Then add another 15 minutes for a couple more days. Keep making those small shifts until you have reached the full hour.
- Get outside and/or be active during daylight.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, especially later in the day.
- Avoid large meals later in the day. Serve the largest meal of the day at lunch, rather than dinnertime.
- Limit or avoid naps in the afternoon.
How to help ease symptoms of sundowning
People living with Alzheimer’s or dementia can have the greatest needs as the darker months arrive. Sundowning, or sundown syndrome, affects about 20% of people living with those conditions, who often display symptoms of restlessness, irritability and confusion that worsen as the light fades.
“Sundowning can continue into the night, making it hard for people with Alzheimer’s to fall asleep and stay in bed,” writes the National Institute on Aging. “As a result, they and their caregivers may have trouble getting enough sleep and functioning well during the day.”
Some potential causes of sundowning include hunger, thirst, depression, pain, boredom and being overly tired. NIA offers some ways to reduce symptoms:
- Allow as much natural light as possible into the living space during the day.
- Go outside or sit by a window during daylight.
- Get physical activity during the day (but not too much).
- Listen to the person’s concerns and reassure them.
- Distract them with a favorite activity, snack or TV show.
- Reduce clutter and noise in the home.
- Have quiet time in the early evening.
- Try softer room lighting in the evening.
- Avoid caffeine later in the day.
- Don’t serve alcohol.
If symptoms persist, a doctor might be able to prescribe medication to help with sleeplessness.
Treating the sadness that comes with ‘SAD’
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is another common complaint during darker winter months—especially those in northern climates who can be especially affected by the lack of light.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes SAD as a type of depression triggered by a seasonal change. Symptoms include feeling depressed, losing interest in activities, changes in appetite, sleeplessness, low energy, difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless and – in the worst cases – thoughts of death or suicide.
NIMH suggests some treatments for SAD:
- Light therapy exposes the person with SAD to bright full-spectrum light every day for 30 to 45 minutes. The light is much brighter than a normal room light, but UV rays are filtered out.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people feel more positive and change certain behaviors to reduce symptoms of SAD.
- Medication can help because SAD is a form of depression. A doctor can work with the older adult to find the best medication for their symptoms.
- Vitamin D might help, but studies have shown mixed results.
Because winter is fairly predictable, NIMH suggests people living with SAD start a therapy program early to get ahead of their symptoms.
With a little preparation and some coping mechanisms, we can brighten up the winter months for everyone.