Many older adults have trouble sleeping. Sleep problems among the elderly could be due to different reasons. Whatever the cause, poor sleep can lead to irritability, forgetfulness or memory problems, depression and inattentiveness leading to falls or accidents.
It’s true that as people age, their biological clock changes, so they tend to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier, too. However, missing out on quality sleep isn’t something you should accept as a normal part of aging. Thus, it’s better to see your physician to check if your sleep problems are due to any of the following causes:
An in-depth sleep study has shown that insomnia afflicts as many as 50 per cent of adults over the age of 60. People with insomnia have difficulty falling and staying asleep. It can last for several days, and sometimes even months or years.
With insomnia, you suffer the consequences of poor, inadequate sleep. You wake up tired and feel sleepy throughout the day. What’s bad about it is the sleeplessness becomes a habit.
Whether you’re young or old, the consequences of sleep deprivation, which include low immunity, increased heart disease and diabetes risk, and unhealthy weight gain, are already dire. These health effects become much worse in seniors who may already be struggling with other age-related medical issues.
If you suffer from insomnia, there are over-the-counter sleep aids and prescription medication that can help you sleep. However, these aren’t the cure for insomnia, and to treat it, the underlying cause needs to be identified, whether it’s stress, disease, hormonal problems or something else like your mattress.
Sleep apnea involves breathing interruptions during sleep. These short pauses in breathing can happen several times at night and interfere with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is essential for restoring memory and cognitive functions.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to hypertension and memory loss and increase the risk of stroke. So if you think you have sleep apnea, see your physician. You may have to modify your sleeping position, use a dental device or undergo surgery. You may also be asked to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
Common movement disorders among older adults include:
- Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD): Leads to jerking and kicking one’s legs every 20 to 40 seconds while asleep. Exercise, relaxation, warm baths and medication can be used to alleviate this condition.
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS): Leads to feeling pins and needles or tingling in one or both legs that worsens at night. There are specific medications used to treat RLS.
- Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behaviour disorder: Normal REM sleep keeps you immobile, but with this disorder, your muscles move while you are in a dream state. Treatment usually includes proper medication and changes in sleep habits.
Senior adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may either sleep too much or too little. They can have many waking episodes at night and may even wander around or yell. This behaviour not only affects the senior person but also their caregivers.
To keep the elderly person safe and to make certain their carers can sleep well, make sure that:
- The room, particularly the floor, is free from clutter or any objects.
- All medicines are safe under lock and key.
- There are grab bars in the bathroom.
- There’s a barrier by the door and across the stairs.
Better sleep tips for seniors
If there is no underlying medical condition behind your troubled sleep, certain changes in your lifestyle could help. In fact, developing healthy habits during the day and at bedtime can make a significant difference in the quality of your sleep.
Below are some easy tips you can implement right away:
- Set a sleep routine. By following a regular sleep-wake schedule, you’re training your body to follow a routine and develop good sleeping habits. Make sure you implement this all throughout the week (including weekends) and even when you are travelling.
- Stop napping late in the day. As much as possible, consider napping early in the afternoon, before 3 p.m., to prevent it from interfering with nighttime sleep.
- Stick to a bedtime routine. Aside from sleeping on a schedule, engage in a relaxing activity prior to going to bed at night. Activities like taking a warm bath, reading a book, listening to music or meditating can help set the tone for sleeping.
- Avoid using your gadgets or watching television before sleeping. If you can, ban electronics in the bedroom as blue light-emitting devices and plain light stimulation at night have been proven to interfere with sleep. Also, watching unsettling or stimulating shows or films can keep you awake, so avoid these before going to bed.
- Check your room temperature. Set your room temperature to the optimum setting for elderly adults – something around 66 to 70°F or 19 to 21°C. As much as possible, keep the temperature in the living room and your bedroom consistent, even if just in the evening.
- Ensure your bedroom is quiet, comfortable and dark. Noise should be minimal in the evening and lighting should be set to low. If you’re used to sleeping in the dark, use blackout curtains to prevent any outdoor light from seeping in between openings or cracks. Make sure you have a good mattress and a set of pillows that are both supportive and soft enough to make sleep a relaxing experience.
- Exercise early in the day. Integrate regular exercise into your daily routine. If you must exercise late in the day, make sure you do it at least three hours before bedtime.
- Avoid late dinners. Eating a large meal too close to bedtime can keep you awake. Just like exercise, enjoy your dinner at least two hours before bedtime. Having an early dinner can also reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome, obesity and suffering from high blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol.
- No caffeine late in the day. Whether you drink tea, coffee, soda or hot cocoa, which all contain caffeine, do it earlier in the day. Taking caffeine late in the day can interfere with sleep.
- No alcohol and tobacco. Although you may feel drowsy after drinking alcohol, even just a bit of alcohol can make staying asleep more difficult. Tobacco users, meanwhile, are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.
Growing old doesn’t mean that missing out on quality sleep is normal. By following the above tips, you can improve your sleep quality and wake up energized and refreshed every day.
But if you struggle to sleep every night and your lack of sleep is already interfering with your ability to function normally, it might be high time to consult with your doctor.