By Dr. David Scales
The elderly woman had been normal all day, my colleague told me, tolerating it well when a tube was placed in her bladder to measure her urine. But that evening, she was found wandering the hospital halls yelling in Italian, carrying her urine bag under her arm thinking it was her purse, traumatized that hospital staff were trying to take it away.
Another night in the hospital, a female Sri Lankan colleague saw an elderly man who was convinced she was a Nazi soldier. Reassurances and even a plea from the doctor — “How could I be a Nazi? I have brown skin!” — could not persuade him otherwise. The next day the patient was back to normal, incredulous when told about what transpired the night before.
An 80-year-old man — I’ll call him Bill — came to our emergency room after a fall. He seemed fine and his tests were negative, but his family wanted him admitted over night for observation. That evening, he began shouting out, repeatedly wanting to get up and walk to the bathroom (forgetting he had just gone). Our calming efforts only riled him up more.
This erratic nighttime behavior is called “sundowning.” Staff in hospitals and nursing homes always worry what will happen as twilight approaches. As the sun sets, many elderly patients can change drastically: They can become extremely confused, agitated, not know where they are, and even hallucinate. In other words, they exhibit signs of delirium, a confused state that can lead them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.Thankfully, not every elderly patient sundowns, but when one does, it can be emotionally traumatizing for everyone. To be confused or hallucinate, or to see a relative acting out in irrational ways, is frightening and destabilizing. Yet, sundowning seems to be extremely common. So, what is it? Why do people sundown? And what can you do to minimize the risk of sundowning in yourself or a close friend or relative?
Experts agree that confusion and agitation are more common in the evening and at night. But there is surprisingly little scientific consensus on what sundowning actually is.
The debate is in how much sundowning and delirium are related. Some experts think they’re the same thing, others separate but related entities.
It’s hard to study sundowning without a clear definition and diagnostic criteria. Experts can’t even be sure how often it happens. A recent review found a rate of anywhere from 2.4 percent to 66 percent. Continue reading