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As the cold weather gets a grip, you might find that your loved one with dementia becomes more distressed, agitated or depressed. Here’s what to expect and how to manage

4 reasons why winter weather can upset people with dementia

1. It makes sundowning worse
The onset of shorter winter days can sometime exacerbate sundowning. Sundowning is a collection of symptoms such as anger, aggression and irritation, which tend to occur at the end of the day (as the sun goes down) and into the night. During winter, dark nights can be very long and many family carers find their loved one’s behaviour more and more difficult to cope with.

2. It can lead to depression
When the brain doesn’t get enough daylight, it can lead to a form of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Sometimes SAD and sundowning can both occur during winter, making life increasingly hard for everyone.

3. It messes with their sleep
Sleep disturbances become more common as dementia progresses because it attacks the part of the brain that controls our circadian rhythm (the internal body clock). During winter months, early evening darkness can cause further confusion. For example, if your loved one lives alone they might go to bed at 5pm because it’s dark…and then be awake through the night.

4. It causes visual problems
Darkness can cause disorientation and intense frustration – dementia already causes visuospatial problems but this can become a great deal worse during darker days and nights. Shadows in dim lights add to the confusion and disorientation, sometimes causing people to imagine they can see something that isn’t there. This could, in turn, make them even more anxious, angry or agitated.

4 ways to cope better

1. Make the most of natural day light
Get outside whenever possible, whether it’s a ten-minute walk to the shops or a trip to a nearby park, natural light and physical activity are a proven, winning combination, helping to boost mood and reducing stress and tension.

TIP: Consider a vitamin D supplement. Low mood, fatigue and depression have all been linked to a lack of vitamin D, the so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’ so a supplement during winter could be particularly helpful.

2. Keep it calm
Keep the room they usually sit in as peaceful as possible during the late afternoon and early evening. If your home is busy and this isn’t realistic, perhaps they could listen to some relaxing music with headphones? Generally, try to keep evening activities soothing and low key.

3. Let the light in
As natural light begins to fade, make sure rooms at home are brightly lit to minimize shadows and reflections, and invest in a few night lights for stairs and landing areas to prevent trips and falls.

4. Consider small changes
For example, if your loved one usually enjoys an afternoon nap, try to bring it forward a little to the early afternoon. Sleeping later than this can confuse the body’s internal clock even more, making it impossible to nod off at night.