Is it a good idea to try bright light therapy for dementia? An increasing number of studies suggest that special lights can be an effective way to ease symptoms like sundowning. Light is already recommended for conditions like Seasonal Affective Disorder and new evidence suggests it can be used for dementia sleep problems. We’ve put together a guide on how to deal with sundowning. What causes it, ways you can stop it from happening and how to do sundowning light therapy at home.
Dementia and Alzheimers – a growing problem for our ageing population
As of 2015, around 850,000 people in the UK were living with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society predicts that by 2025 this will have risen to 1,142,677 as our population gets older. 1 in 5 people over the age of 80 will develop a form of the disease. This is why it’s increasingly important for us all to become aware of the signs and symptoms of dementia. As well as ways of helping the people we love to deal with their condition. Two thirds of the cost of treating dementia is picked up by patients and their families. This leaves many carers feeling overwhelmed and unsupported.
What is Sundowning Syndrome?
One of the most trying things for carers and patients to deal with are dementia sleep problems. It's common for symptoms of dementia to increase in the late afternoon and early evening. This is referred to as ‘sundowning’ or ‘sundowners syndrome’. During sun downing, you may notice an increase in aggression, agitation and confusion. The sufferer will become difficult to calm down. There are multiple factors that can make sundowning behaviour worse, including:
- Not enough or too much light
- Sleep deprivation or disturbed sleep
- Disturbance to the circadian rhythms that tell the body to sleep
- Changes to routine
- Medication wearing off
- Side effects of medication
- Excessive noise
Sundowning syndrome symptoms are exhausting for everyone involved due to the time of day when they happen. The combination of dementia and sleep problems means that it's difficult for you and your loved one to ever feel fully rested. A method of treatment for sundowning is through lifestyle changes that can help to distract the person and help them to sleep. These include:
- Enjoying relaxing activities such as gardening together in the late afternoon
- Gentle exercise like walking
- Giving the person a favourite and familiar hobby to do at difficult times of the day
- Considering whether something that’s happened during the day could be upsetting them
- Minimising naps and getting enough daylight
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening
Bright Light Therapy for Dementia – a good sundowning treatment?
Bright light therapy involves the use of special lights (SAD lamps) to simulate the effect of strong daylight. It's most commonly used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder or ‘winter blues’. Read more about this in our blog about SAD. This is a form of depression that happens during darker months when the brain doesn’t get enough daylight. SAD lamps can also be used to alter your body clock. This makes it very useful for people with sleep disorders like insomnia and jetlag.
By using a SAD lamp at specific times each day your circadian rhythm can be reset to achieve normal sleep patterns. Getting enough sleep isn't just important in reducing symptoms like sundowning in dementia patients. It also helps to slow the progression of the disease. Alzheimer’s disease causes an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus to get smaller. This is the region that controls circadian rhythms, explaining why sleep disorders become more common as the disease progresses.
Studies on the use of bright light therapy for dementia have found that it can result in a decrease in wandering. It also results in improvements in cognitive ability and behaviour. One study found that two hours of treatment in the morning led to a reduction in waking time of almost two hours. This shows the effect that SAD lamps can have in resetting the body clock.
Using Dementia Light Therapy at Home
All of our light therapy lamps are up to the medical standard brightness of at least 10,000 lux. Which one you choose may depend on the needs of the person it's for. A portable light like the Beurer TL30 Compact Daylight Lamp is useful for sitting on a table during breakfast or by the person’s favourite chair. If the person being treated dislikes being restricted in their movement you may want the super powered 14,000 lux Lanaform Lumino Plus Light Therapy Lamp. Its high level of light means it works from up to 50 cm away.
The many positive studies on light therapy for Alzheimers and dementia have established some guidelines you can follow to use sundowning light therapy at home. Use the SAD light in the morning. This will make sure the person being treated wakes up properly and doesn’t need to nap during the day. 30 minutes to an hour per day is enough to feel the benefits of light therapy. It’s a good idea to try and combine it with an established part of the person’s routine such as a meal time.
Adjusting to a Light Therapy Routine
As the behaviour of people with dementia can be unpredictable at the best of times, you may find some resistance to the Alzheimer’s light therapy as your loved one gets used to it. Here are some possible reactions and ideas on how to deal with them:
- They do not want to stay in front of the lamp. Start a conversation with them as a diversion or hold their hand to comfort them. Keep them focused on you rather than the situation
- They become distracted by something else. You may find it easier to do the treatment during breakfast. This is an excellent time of day for it and means it can become part of their routine.
- They become agitated. Use verbal reassurance. If they don’t respond then end the session and try again the next day.
Bright light therapy for dementia can slow the progression of symptoms by as much a 5%. This allows patients an average of 6 months more time in their own homes. Having a SAD lamp at home is a simple treatment that can make a big difference in the lives of people with dementia. Discover our extensive range of lamps today to see how they can help you.
Other Ways to Help With Dementia
At StressNoMore we offer a range of living aids that are fantastic for easing some of the difficulties of living with dementia. One of our top sellers is the Red Deluxe Tableware Set for Alzheimer's. Many patients with Alzheimer's or dementia struggle to eat enough, partially due to the confusion these conditions cause over times of day. A study at Boston University found that this could be combated by using red tableware! Placing food on a brightly coloured plate helps sufferers to concentrate and to be able to see clearly where the food is. This special set also has design features that allow the cutlery and plates to be easily and safely used one handed.
Dementia can also lead to toileting issues - if the person you care for has begun to need pads or adult diapers then a pair of CareZips Incontinence Trousers will make things easier for both of you. Their clever design features three zips so that underwear and pads can be changed by just unzipping the crotch area without needing to remove the trousers. This removes the need for lifting and manouvering and will make changing your loved one far less stressful and hazardous.