Sleep Habits, Sundowning and Wandering – Living with Dementia

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For family members caring for someone with dementia, it’s challenging and exhausting to witness an increase in their loved one’s disorientation. It’s frightening and exhausting trying to keep a loved one safe and secure, but there are ways to help. Changes in sleep habits, sundowning and wandering are a few of the more common changes that dementia patients experience as the diseases progresses.

The Assisting Hands Dementia Education Program is designed to help families and caregivers better understand and meet the needs of those living with dementia. We’ve also posted a guide to mealtime, a guide for grooming, dressing and toileting, and another guide for bathing. In this article, we take a look at sleep, sundowning and wandering and measures you can take to help.

Sleep Habits

People with dementia often have problems with sleeping and may experience changes in their sleep schedule. It may be hard to get your loved one to go to bed and stay there. They may sleep a lot or not enough and may also wake up many times during the night. Here are some tips to help:

  • Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature.
  • Provide comfortable pajamas.
  • Decrease caffeine throughout the day.
  • Use a nightlight in the bedroom and play soothing music.
  • Provide reassurance if they wake up agitated.
  • Offer a snack if they have trouble getting back to sleep.

Getting outside during the day or even just looking out a window during daylight hours can also be helpful, as well as limiting naps. You may also want to plan activities that use more energy earlier in the day.


Sundowning, also known as “late day confusion,” affects approximately 20% of people with dementia. It results in increased disorientation, anxiety and agitation at the end of the day and can occur for several reasons: exhaustion, hunger or thirst, boredom and sadness, curiosity about the change from light to darkness or difficulty being able to distinguish objects during low light and shadows. There are several measure you can take during the sundown period, including:

  • Keep the house well lit.
  • Provide reassurance to keep them calm.
  • Notice triggers that make them upset and make appropriate changes to their routine.
  • Provide a snack/meal and a drink.
  • Play soothing music.


Some people with dementia will wander, meaning they will walk out of the house or walk away from you and get lost. There are many reasons why a person with dementia will wander, such as fear, searching for something, looking for a bathroom or trying to follow past routines. This is a frightening experience for everyone, but there are ways to help minimize wandering including:

  • Set a routine and get outside daily weather permitting.
  • Make sure basic needs are met (food, drink, toileting).
  • Avoid places that are crowded, noisy and large.
  • Don’t leave them unsupervised.
  • Keep the car and house keys out of sight.
  • Make sure they have a form of identification with them and consider a Safe Return bracelet from the Alzheimer’s Association. Assisting Hands also offers a Help Alert pendant for those with medical or mobility issues.

It’s important to also take measures around the house, such as: keeping all doors locked, adding signs to the front door (ie: ‘STOP’ or ‘Do Not Enter’), putting a sliding bolt lock on doors that is out of reach, installing a door alarm on the front and back doors and placing a dark color mat in front of the door (a black mat may look like a hole to those with dementia).

Elopement is another form of wandering and refers to when a person leaves his/her home alone. It’s a serious concern for someone with dementia, as they aren’t aware of directions. Here are some steps to take in this situation:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Make a note of the time and location of when you last saw them and what they were wearing.
  • Have a recent picture to show the police.
  • Consider an ID bracelet.
  • Remember what they were last talking about, such as going to work, visiting family, etc.
  • Make a note of their past address, past job location, location of place of worship, etc.

Caring for a loved one with dementia can be exhausting and stressful. As a caregiver, it’s essential to take good care of yourself, so you’ll be in a better position to give your loved one the support they need. Assisting Hands specializes in Alzheimer’s and Dementia care and provides professional in-home personal care services. Call us at 301-363-2580 and let’s discuss how we can help.