Common Sleep Problems In Seniors And How To Address Them
June 27th, 2022
Sleep issues can be draining and disorientating at any time of life, but when you’re dealing with lack of sleep or extreme drowsiness on top of other health problems, it can be especially distressing.
In some cases, not getting enough sleep can even be a risk factor for other health conditions, such as high blood pressure, which can increase the likelihood of a heart attack or a stroke.
You can’t underestimate the importance of regularly getting a good night’s sleep, but factors beyond your control can compromise this. Try to stay in tune with what’s happening with your sleeping patterns – or those of the elderly person you’re caring for – and keep a lookout for any changes.
From seniors sleeping too much to later-life insomnia, there can be lots of different sleep problems that affect people as they get older. Read on to discover some of the most common, as well as how to address them.
Common Sleep Problems In Seniors
There are many reasons why sleep problems in seniors can manifest, from health problems to medication side effects. Some of the most common sleep issues among older people include:
- Sleep apnoea (a condition that means your breathing stops and starts during the night)
- Urinary or prostate issues leading to frequent waking
- Medication side effects that make it harder to get to sleep
- Lung problems that can cause breathing issues, disrupting sleep
- Conditions such as arthritis causing pain and discomfort, making it more difficult to get to sleep
- Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can disrupt sleeping patterns, making elderly people more sleepy in the day and awake at night. Find out more about the signs of dementia
If you ever have any concerns about changes in yours or a loved one’s sleeping patterns, you should always speak to your GP.
How Much Sleep Do Elderly People Need?
Elderly people typically need the same amount of sleep as other adults – around 7-9 hours a night. However, their sleeping and waking hours may change, with many older people preferring to get up earlier and go to bed earlier than they used to.
If you notice this change in their waking hours, it shouldn’t be anything to worry about, but if you notice significant changes in your own or an elderly loved one’s sleeping pattern, you should always speak to your GP.
Excessive Sleep In Elderly People: What It Might Mean
One of the most common sleep problems in seniors is excessive sleep. Research shows that up to 20% of people experience significant daytime drowsiness as they get older, which could be a sign of an underlying health issue, such as sleep apnoea, or even a cardiovascular issue.
Feelings of drowsiness and lethargy can also be linked to anxiety and depression, so speak to your GP if you have any concerns about your mental health.
Excessive sleep in elderly people can be a side effect of some medications, but it may also be a consequence of boredom. If you’re looking after an older person, it’s important to make sure they have plenty to keep them busy and stimulated, and that they have regular contact with other people.
If you’re especially worried that an elderly person is sleeping too much due to boredom, you may want to consider whether moving into a care home could be an option. In residential care, they’ll be surrounded by other residents and care home staff 24/7, and there’ll be plenty of activities to keep them stimulated.
What Can Cause Insomnia In Later Life?
Insomnia (the inability to get to sleep) can be caused by many issues in later life, with data from the Sleep Foundation showing that people aged 60 and over are more susceptible to insomnia. Inability to sleep in later life could be a result of:
- Changes in medication – insomnia can be a side effect of some medications; if your medication isn’t working for you, speak to your GP who will be able to review your options with you
- Changes in circadian rhythm – your body clock may change as you get older; in some cases, this can leave you feeling sleepy in the day and wide awake at night
- Sleep apnoea – this is a condition that sees your breathing stops and starts as you sleep, which may leave you feeling anxious to go to sleep, and may jolt you awake during the night. Speak to your GP if you have any concerns about sleep apnoea, as you may benefit from a CPAP machine. This pumps air into a mask that you wear while you sleep, helping to improve your breathing, and subsequently your sleep
- Heartburn – your ability to eat rich foods in the evening could change as you get older. You may need to start avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods with your evening meal
- Arthritis – experiencing discomfort at night may keep you awake. If pain is affecting your ability to sleep, speak to your GP who may be able to recommend exercises or a change in medication
- Frequent urination – the need for more frequent urination could be a side effect of some medications, but it may also be related to prostate issues, so seek medical advice if you have any concerns
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS) – also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, RLS leaves you with an overwhelming urge to move your legs. Women are more likely to be affected than men, but if it persists, speak to your GP, as it may be due to the way your body is handling hormones such as dopamine, or even an iron deficiency
Insomnia can typically be managed by changing your sleeping patterns, and by trying to establish a consistent bedtime routine. If insomnia persists and is having an impact on your day-to-day life, speak to your GP, who will be able to investigate what’s behind it.
What’s A Good Bedtime Routine For Seniors?
Whatever stage of life you’re at, the advice for establishing a good bedtime routine tends to be the same. Consistency is key to getting into a routine, so you may need to persevere in order to see results.
- Avoid rich foods – avoid caffeine, spice, and alcohol in the evening to help prevent heartburn. A plain, light meal may be best in the evening instead
- Take a bath before bed – this can be incredibly calming, especially if you add a drop or two of lavender essential oil to the water
- Drink a warm, milky drink – this can also have a soothing, calming effect. Chamomile tea is a good alternative
- Avoid screen time before bed – get into the habit of turning the TV off a couple of hours before bed, and schedule any virtual calls with loved ones earlier on in the day
- Read a book – if your eyes aren’t up to reading yourself, ask if a loved one can read to you, or set an audiobook to play. Check out our recommendations for the best audiobooks with senior protagonists
- Keep the bedroom cool and comfortable – many people struggle to get to sleep when it’s too warm, so make sure duvet togs and blankets aren’t too thick and heavy, consider investing in a fan, and keep windows open when necessary
- Set an alarm – it’s also important to try to wake up at the same time each morning to make sure you’re the same level of tired each evening when you begin your bedtime routine
If you’re looking after an elderly person, you may need to facilitate a bedtime routine for them, factoring in extra time for each step if their mobility is limited, or if you need to allow time for taking medication.
Natural Sleep Remedies For Elderly People
Many people prefer to turn to natural sleep aids when they need a helping hand getting a good night’s rest. From essential oils to supplements that are believed to help relax your mind, there are lots of natural options out there. There’s no one-size-fits-all best natural sleep aid for elderly people, but there are different things you can try to find the right solution for you.
Natural sleep remedies for elderly people include:
- Exercise – tiring your body and mind out with exercise during the day may lead to better sleep at night. This could be a gentle walk, a swim (which may help to alleviate arthritis-related pain affecting your sleep), or even something like chair yoga
- Lavender oil – this essential oil is known for its relaxing properties, so placing a few drops on your pillow before you go to sleep could help to calm your mind ready for sleep
- Chamomile oil – this essential oil is believed to have similar properties to lavender oil, so try a few drops on your pillow
- Reed diffuser – look for a reed diffuser with lavender and chamomile to place in your bedroom. The calming scents may help to relax you before you go to bed
- Valerian supplements – valerian is believed to help reduce feelings of anxiety to aid sleep, so you may want to look into taking sleep supplements featuring this ingredient
- Melatonin supplements – melatonin is known to help regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythms, so you may want to look into using a melatonin spray or supplement
Always speak to your GP before trying any new supplements, so you can understand how they may affect you.
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