Nov 3, 2014

Dementia, Overstimulation, Sundowning, and the Holidays

It’s important that you know your loved one well enough to recognize when he or she may be getting overwhelmed. Always remember, too, that it’s not his or her fault: that’s just how dementia works sometimes.


Alzheimer's and demenita care  | Alzheimer's Reading Room
By Rachael Wonderlin
Alzheimer's Reading Room

We’d had a great day at my memory care community. Forty children from a local elementary school came to visit for Halloween, and the kids sang for our residents. We gave candy to the kids, and the kids gave our residents hugs.

One of our residents, Mary*, gets agitated very easily. She does not interact much with other residents, and seems, generally, like she’s in her own world.


I looked over at her at one point, however, and saw tears of joy in her eyes. Child after child went up to hug her as she sat in her wheelchair. Mary’s smile stretched across her face as she threw her arms around each and every guest.

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Two hours later, after the children had gone, Mary was panicked.

“Get OUT! Go away! Get out of here!” she screamed at the staff. 

“Let’s get her into a quiet space,” I told everyone.

We took her into a quieter room and I asked a CNA to stay with her. “Sit behind her so that she can’t see you,” I told her. “But we don’t want Mary to stand up and fall.”

Mary was experiencing sundowning, but it was made exponentially worse because of all of the stimulation she’d had earlier. Although she’d had a wonderful time with the children, it was probably an overwhelming experience. Now, at the end of the day, Mary was exhausted and anxious.


The holidays are coming up, and it’s important to make sure that your loved ones with dementia are there to enjoy the festivities. Bear in mind, however, that people with dementia can get more anxious and agitated than the rest of us, especially when there’s a lot of external stimulation.

If you’re bringing your loved one with dementia to a family party, be sure that they have time or space to “get away” from the crowd if they need to.


Recognize that you may need to adjust your schedule so that he or she can feel comfortable while you’re celebrating.

While everyone with dementia is different, many people in later stages of cognitive decline get agitated in the afternoon. When you or I could just say, “I’m feeling tired and I’d like to be left alone,” some people with dementia aren’t able to communicate that effectively. Instead, your loved one might begin to seem anxious or upset.


It’s important that you know your loved one well enough to recognize when he or she may be getting overwhelmed. Always remember, too, that it’s not his or her fault: that’s just how dementia works sometimes. Even if your loved one used to be very social and outgoing, he or she may have trouble socializing for more than a few hours.

With a couple adjustments and planning ahead, the holidays can be a wonderful time for your loved one with dementia to see family and friends.

Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s of Science in Gerontology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She works as a Memory Care Program Coordinator.  Rachael also writes on her own blog at Dementia By Day.


*Names have been changed

More Articles on Alzheimer's and Dementia by Rachael Wonderlin

How to Become a Dementia Detective

What is Aphasia in Dementia?

Don't Want to Lie to a Person Living with Dementia, Why Not Embrace Reality Instead

4 Ways to Deal with Constant Questioning from a Person Living with Alzheimer's


How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia

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