How the elderly can get a better night’s sleep

Sleeping can often cause difficulties for elderly people. Regular waking through the night, aches and pains and insomnia can all be problematic, and these can lead to exhaustion during the day – which can make everyday activities a struggle.

So how can you help your elderly relative to sleep better through the night?

Changes in sleep as we age

Sleep patterns change as we age. The older we get, the lighter our sleep tends to get, which is a natural occurrence. Less deep sleep means there is a greater tendency to wake briefly during the night on multiple occasions, and elderly people will often go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.

In addition to this, many elderly people may also suffer problems that prevent them from sleeping well:

  • arthritis can cause pain that prevents restful sleep
  • they may need to urinate more frequently during the night
  • some medications can affect sleep
  • stress due to moving home or the loss of friends and family can also affect sleep

These are often not genuine sleep disorders, but they can certainly have an effect on sleep.

However, sometimes more serious sleep disorders can cause problems. These include sleep apnoea, where breathing temporarily stops, periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS), and restless leg syndrome.

Changes you can make to the daily routine

As long as there is no specific sleep disorder, there are often many simple changes that a person can make to their daily routine to get a better night’s sleep. You could help your elderly relative to incorporate these into their lifestyle. Some of these include:

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and waking time. This helps to get into a routine, which can improve the quality of sleep.
  • Have pre-sleep rituals such as taking a bath or reading a book to prepare for sleep each night.
  • Exercise during the day. We’ve written on exercise for the elderly before, and this is one of the best ways to get a better night’s sleep. Physical exercise tires you out more, but exercise is best carried out earlier in the day rather than during the few hours preceding sleep.
  • Avoid substances that affect sleep. This may involve cutting down on caffeine, smoking and alcohol.
  • Try to avoid longer daytime naps. Many people enjoy their long naps, but if their night time sleep is affected, it may be better to cut the nap to about 30 minutes or less.
  • Get out and about. Going for a walk, doing some gardening and getting lots of daylight can help to improve sleep.
  • The sleep environment itself may be a problem. Make sure the bedroom is a comfortable temperature and not too warm, and ensure it is dark and peaceful. A good quality mattress should also be used to provide enough support.
  • Mental stimulation during the day can help with sleep. This could include a hobby, doing the crossword, jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, reading or anything else they enjoy doing.
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See a doctor if the problem is more serious

Sometimes a trip to the doctor is in order. For example, you may suspect that a medication your relative is taking is causing them sleep problems. Or there may be a more serious health condition that needs to be checked.

If you are worried, encourage a trip to the doctor. They may want to carry out some further tests, or they might provide some recommendations for changing sleep habits.

Useful Resources:

WebMD

Sleep Council

NHS

Sleep Foundation