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Solving Senior Sleep Problems

Posted by Constance Schein, RN
on August 27, 2019
alarm clock

As you reach for your eyeglasses to read the morning newspaper or think twice about ordering a spicy meal, you may be aware of the physical changes happening to you as you age. Some changes are small and bothersome, while others can greatly affect your daily life.  One of the most significant, age-related changes for seniors are sleep problems.  Insomnia, feelings of fatigue, and brain fog due to a lack of sleep can be normal with age.  However, these symptoms can negatively impact your quality of life, and there are ways to curtail these sleep problems.    

Sleep disturbances are often attributed to the physical and psychiatric changes in the elderly and the side effects of the medications used to treat these changes.  Some seniors will deal with short periods of insomnia, but chronic insomnia (insomnia lasting over three weeks) is not a normal part of the aging process.  We suggest that you consult with your physician to rule out any medical reasons for your restless sleep or chronic insomnia.   

If you are the primary caregiver for a senior, you may be aware they are having sleep problems.  Perhaps you hear your parent walking around several times throughout the night, or you can see they are fatigued after a night’s sleep. 

Medical issues that can cause senior sleep problems:  

  • Pain. Lower back pain, headaches, arthritis, surgery, or illness can cause pain in the elderly, making it difficult to fall asleep and remain soundly asleep.
  • Dementia.  Researchers do not entirely understand why Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia disrupt sleep patterns.  Sundowning is another issue related to dementia that causes agitation during the hours around dusk, making it difficult to relax before bedtime.
  • Heart Disease. The symptoms of heart disease, such as angina, fluid buildup in the lungs, or abnormal heart rhythm, can cause poor sleep.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). GERD, also known as acid reflux, causes irritation and pain that can make it challenging to get to sleep and remain soundly asleep. 
  • Sleep Apnea.  Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can cause an individual to stop breathing and interrupt their sleep patterns.   The fatigue and sleep deprivation of OSA can cause significant health issues, putting your loved one at risk for cardiovascular disease, depression, and even memory loss.   
  • Depression.  Chronic insomnia is a leading cause of depression in the elderly. In turn, depression disrupts the sleep pattern, causing a vicious cycle of insomnia for your parent.
  • Frequent Urination.  Visiting the bathroom often at night or incontinence can be signs of diabetes, a side effect of medication, a urinary tract infection, or a kidney infection.  
  • Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) Characterized by unpleasant tingling or twitching feelings in your legs, a neurological disorder causing one to move their limbs.  

Once you have consulted with a doctor to address any medical issues or the medications that might impact sleep, how can you help your parent or spouse get a better night’s sleep?  We suggest a nightly routine that is adhered to regularly for best results.  It may sound simple, but studies have shown this can have significant results for your aging parent.  A nightly routine has also been shown to increase a sense of security and reduce anxiety. 

Try these steps to help solve senior sleep problems:  

  • Stick to a routine where your parent regularly goes to bed at the same time every night and wakes up at approximately the same time each morning.
  • Have a relaxing nighttime routine that includes dimming the lights, turning off the television, powering down the computer, and don’t bring a smartphone or iPad to bed. 
  • Reading a book or listening to soothing music can help your loved one wind down and feel drowsy.
  • Try a warm, soothing bath in the evening to help to calm and relax your parent. 
  • A glass of warm milk contains a natural, sedative-like amino acid that may help your loved one feel sleepy and get to sleep faster.  
  • Try a light, healthy snack that has shown to help some seniors sleep more soundly during the night.  
  • Avoid drinking alcohol, which may cause your spouse to fall asleep quicker but can disrupt their sleep throughout the night and lead to poor quality sleep.  
  • Avoid tobacco use close to bedtime.
  • Moderate exercise, such as a walk during the day, can lead to a more restful night’s sleep.  
  • Exposure during the day to natural daylight or bright light has shown to help with better sleep by setting one’s circadian rhythms and melatonin levels that signal the brain when to rest.  
  • Avoid coffee, chocolate, tea, and caffeinated sodas at least four hours prior to bedtime. 
  • Suggest to your parent that they do not nap during the day. But if they must, limit the naps to a half-hour.
  • Some find that ambient noise machines can be helpful or an eye mask or blackout shades to keep out the light.
  • Try deep breathing exercises or meditation to wind down before bedtime.

Lack of sleep can be difficult for a senior—hard on their sense of well-being and their health.  Taking steps to make your loved one comfortable, calm, and relaxed may help them get to sleep quicker and sleep better throughout the night. And don’t hesitate to consult with a medical professional if you are concerned about your parent’s lack of sleep and its effect on their health.

At Aegis Living, we offer comfortable, private apartments where our residents can get a restful night’s sleep.  Contact a community near you to set up a tour.  We wish you sweet dreams!

Profile image of Constance Schein, RN

Constance Schein, RN

Former Senior Vice President of Clinical and Health Services

Constance Schein is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of nursing experience in senior-focused healthcare organizations. She led Aegis Living’s major nursing and care initiatives and was responsible for managing and developing healthcare partnerships, technology, and wellness programs to improve resident care.

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