Everybody knows how you feel when you don’t get enough sleep. Restorative and regenerating seven or eight hours a night is “a good nights sleep” for most of us to enable the body to do its healing. Not enough sleep leads to both physical and mental health problems. This is our guide to sleep for the elderly and tips for getting a good nights’ rest.
Sleep problems for the elderly
Many people accept as they get older that their quality of sleep is not nearly as good as it used to be, and this may be due to medical conditions, certain medications, pain or frequently getting up for the loo. There are plenty of things that can be done to try to improve it.
Some people cannot get to sleep, others have no problem with falling asleep but wake up in the middle of the night and have long spells awake. While others wake early – 5 or 6 in the morning – and can’t get back to sleep at all.
Before bedtime routine
Preparing for bedtime could have a positive effect on quality of sleep. It is said to be helpful to have a routine and go upstairs at the same time each night and do the same things. Winding down and relaxing before sleeping is well worthwhile. Some people like to have a hot bath, read or listen to music to make them drowsy.
Funnily enough (!), sleep experts advise that stimulating or terrifying films or TV programmes aren’t the best way of preparing for a relaxing night. In fact, electronic equipment in the bedroom, including televisions, is not considered very sleep inducing. If there’s a big clock with flashing lights by the bed it’s not helpful for relaxation. Similarly, it has been suggested that looking at mobile phones before sleeping is also likely to disturb your ability to sleep.
What to eat or drink before bed
Caffeine is a stimulant which can keep people awake so its an idea to cut it out in the evening. Chocolate also contains caffeine so if its normal to have some in the evening, it might be better to eat it after lunch instead. Anyone who likes an evening drink, herbal teas or milky drinks are preferable.
However, drinks in the evening can make visits to the loo more frequent during the night.
Alcohol is also a stimulant so a drop is better in the early part of the evening. For some people alcohol helps them to get to sleep initially, but they wake up later feeling dehydrated and find it hard to get back to sleep.
- Having dinner early also prevents feeling too full at bedtime, or getting indigestion.
- Most people are aware of which foods cause them indigestion, so it’s best to avoid these in the evening.
- Natural remedies for indigestion include charcoal tablets, available at any chemist or health store, which removes toxins from the body. Nux vomica is a homeopathic remedy which is helpful for digestive problems.
Getting the temperature right
It’s so important to get the temperature right. Feeling cold inhibits sleep so perhaps a hot water bottle, a wheat bag (that you warm up in the microwave or Aga), or an electric blanket (remember to switch it off when you get into bed) can provide a solution. A pair of pyjamas and some bed socks can be a good investment, but they might need to be discarded in the night as the temperature in the bed warms up!
- A hot bath can help to start the night off feeling warm.
- Banish draughts – thick curtains can cut out the cold from the windows.
- Getting the bedding right is important – is the duvet warm enough for the winter? A good recommendation of weight is a 13.5 – 15 tog duvet in wintertime, with maybe a summer duvet when it gets warmer.
- In extremely cold temperatures it might be a good idea to leave the heating on overnight. The cost may be a concern, but keeping warm and cosy is essential for good health.
Of course, being too hot is likely to interrupt sleep as well. Consider wearing less, a lighter duvet, fewer blankets or opening the window. There are some very quiet electric fans available or maybe even consider air con in the bedroom.
- Dogs barking or pets being in the bedroom.
- A snoring partner which can drive people to distraction!
- Traffic or trains nearby.
Ear plugs are a great solution but not everyone likes them. They cut out or reduce local noise, but are unlikely to prevent anyone hearing an important noise such as an alarm (depending on their hearing).
Lights: Streetlights, neighbour’s lights, or dawn can disturb sleep. Dark curtains or blinds block out light from outside although some people prefer lights on at night for safety reasons. A little plug-in nightlight can prove useful for going to the bathroom in the night.
Try to cut down on the number of standby lights on electrical goods in and around the bedroom, or switch them off at the wall.
Worrying at night: one of the most common reasons for not sleeping at night is worrying with thoughts rushing around. Stress is common in the elderly as they may be worrying about their health, what is going to happen to them, or about their family.
Sleeping tablets are usually only prescribed for those in pain or suffering from illness, but natural remedies, which do not have side-effects, may be helpful.
- Rescue Remedy capsules or tincture contains a mixture of natural flower essences which calm the mind.
- Several herbal remedies are available for calming and sleeping well, but it’s necessary to check that these don’t contraindicate medication. For example, Warfarin is not recommended with herbal remedies.
- Lavender is effective at inducing relaxation and sleep without causing any side-effects. A few drops of essential lavender oil can be put into a night time bath, or put on a tissue by the pillow. A little bag of dried lavender has the same effect.
More tips for easing stress at night
- If the mind is racing and there seem to be a lot of things to remember, write them down before sleeping so they’re not a disturbance at night.
- Some people find getting up for a while is helpful.
- Reading can be so relaxing that it’s worth getting out a book in the middle of the night.
- Meditation is a simple technique which helps to calm the mind. Information can be found at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/treatment/complementary-alternative-therapies/individual-therapies/meditation
- Visualisation – a technique for imagining a beautiful relaxing situation to help induce sleep. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/treatment/complementary-alternative-therapies/individual-therapies/visualisation
- Counselling – if life is very difficult it can be helpful to speak to a qualified person who is not emotionally involved. Contact: BACP, https://www.bacp.co.uk/contact/ for details of local counsellors or Cruse, for bereavement counselling. https://www.cruse.org.uk/
Naps and exercise in the day
Some people swear by their afternoon nap, but it could have a detrimental effect on night time sleep. However, if getting a good night’s sleep seems impossible, it’s essential to catch up during the day. Exercise during the day helps with sleep at night, but exercise in the evening is not helpful as it might make it more difficult to get to sleep!
Sleep and Dementia
Dementia frequently causes disturbed sleep for several reasons but usually because of symptoms such as agitation, confusion, and aggressive behaviour. All of the advice given here could be helpful, but if all else fails sleeping tablets may be the only answer. It’s important to see a GP or consultant to get the most appropriate drugs prescribed. There is more information on the Alzheimer’s Society website here.
Frances Ive is a health writer and author who has had over 100 articles published in national newspapers and consumer magazines. She is a member of The Guild of Health Writers.