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How to cope with sleep problems in the elderly

Most of us have, from time to time, had trouble sleeping. As our parents age they can become more prone to sleep issues. Their sleep patterns change and health conditions can get in the way of a good night’s rest.

Why isn’t my parent sleeping well?

Whether they’ve been waking during the night, finding it hard to fall asleep or experiencing bad dreams there are many ways our parent’s sleep can be disturbed and its quality diminished.

Pain from arthritic joints, sleep apnea, the need to urinate more often, and a variety of medications as well as exercising less are just some of the physical factors. Stress from moving home or losing loved ones and anxiety or depression are often experienced in later life and can keep our parents awake at night.

According to Sleep Apnoea Trust, the second-highest cause of elderly sleeping problems is obstructive sleep apnea. Thirty percent of those with such issues are relying on CPAP machines to help them sleep better. However, there are reported cases of injuries included in potential CPAP lawsuits that may lead to bigger health risks in the elderly.

Poor sleep over a prolonged period of time can lead to parents lacking the energy to carry out everyday tasks and can even cause symptoms that mimic those of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

How much sleep does my parent need?

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists most adults need around 8 hours sleep a night and while older people need the same amount they will often have one period of deep sleep lasting 3-4 hours after which they’re more easily disturbed.

While the amount of sleep our parent needs varies on an individual basis, when the regularity of a good night’s sleep starts to dwindle they may feel more exhausted during the day which can lead to a number of health issues.

Practical ways you can help your parent sleep

There are many things you can do to encourage your parents to sleep well and help them change habits that could be affecting their rest at night. Here are a few tips to get your parents on track and hopefully prevent them from being overtired in the future.

Get active. As your parent gets older exercising regularly can be a challenge, especially if their mobility becomes impaired. Whether your parent goes for a walk around their garden, stroll to the shops and back or perhaps go for swim there are plenty of ways they can get active during the day to leave them sufficiently tired out as the evening approaches.

Keeping your parents’ minds active with mentally stimulating hobbies such as completing crossword or Sudoku puzzles, jigsaws and reading can all help to engage and tire out the brain so it’s easier to sleep at night.

Venture outdoors. If you can help your parent get out and about during the day or perhaps ask their carer to facilitate outdoor activities more it could help your parent to sleep better at night. Exposure to daylight helps to stimulate the production of melatonin in the body which brings more oxygen to the brain. The increase of oxygen will not only help your parent’s sleep but their overall health as well.

This is particularly important to bear in mind for those of us with parents in a memory care facility as they may be limited by their care schedule or the amount of staff available to take patients outside for a walk or for day trips. Ensuring your parent’s “let out” on a regular basis can be tricky to coordinate with a care home so it’s good to have a conversation about your parents needs when they first arrive or perhaps at a care review.

Set a routine. For parents coping with a changeable night’s sleep it could be helpful to set a routine with them so they can benefit from associating positive behaviours with sleep and bed time rather than worrying that they won’t sleep and creating a negative pattern.

Relax before bed. It sounds obvious but avoiding stimulating activities, foods and drinks before going to bed can help your parent to feel more relaxed and ready for rest. Taking time to relax by watching the television or reading a book in the evening will help to calm the body and distract your parent from dwelling on negative thoughts or memories.

Be comfortable. If your parent’s bed or bedding is uncomfortable or irritating it could cause them to lose out on sleep. Buying a new mattress may be a necessary step to ensure your parent is comfortable and that their back and neck are supported safely by a mattress suited to their physical needs.

Beds delivered next day are a good option for parents who need a quick solution to their sleep problems. Cheap and synthetic beddings could also be a source of discomfort so getting your parent some new cotton bedding could help to ease them into a good night’s sleep.

Change clothes. While this fits in with being comfortable making sure your parent doesn’t wear restrictive or synthetic pyjamas as this could cause irritation in the night. It may seem obvious – wear something comfy – but if our parents have always worn a particular pair, brand or style of pyjama it could be time for a change. Loose, cotton clothing or perhaps sleeping starkers could be the way forward for a parent whose skin is easily agitated or they feel constricted in their current sleepwear.

Review medication. If your parent is taking multiple medications perhaps to manage a range of health conditions you may find that something they’re taking is disrupting their sleep. An irregular sleep routine could be a side effect of combining two medicines or perhaps their pill regime means they’re getting up in the night. If your parent is concerned about the effect their treatment plan is having on their sleep it’s best to consult their GP or pharmacist for advice.

Limit light. As our parents get older they may start to go to bed earlier which can be problematic for their sleep routine if it’s still light outside. Buying some blackout blinds or curtains, wearing a sleep mask or switching off items that emit light (like mobile phones or televisions on standby) can all help to reduce the level of light in your parent’s bedroom and allow their body to relax naturally.

While most people prefer to sleep in total darkness you may find your parent likes to leave a light on at night especially if they frequently get up to go to the bathroom. Leaving the landing light on or buying them a night light for their bedroom could help put them at ease when falling asleep.

Catch up on sleep. There’s no shame in catching up on sleep. If your parent’s missed a lot of sleep through disturbed nights or not sleeping at all it’s a good idea for them to get some much needed rest. Although sleeping for long periods of time during the day could offset your parent’s sleep routine napping at regular times and sleeping longer at weekends could help them catch up and recover.

Relieve stresses. If you’re concerned your parent’s worries are keeping them up at night it could be time to talk them through. These might be small stresses over completing household chores or keeping the garden tidy or they could be bigger worries like bills to pay and concern over pension funds. Taking responsibility for the things that worry your parent could help relieve their stress.

Support change. Your parents may start going to bed earlier, waking up earlier or napping during the day. All of these changes to their sleeping habits are new to them as well as you. Supporting them as they adjust to a new routine will help make the transition easier especially as they may be irritable and exhausted throughout the adjustment period.

Redecorate. Sometimes we can dwell on the negative parts of our day or bad memories when we’re alone at night. It’s no different for our parents. If they’re lacking positive reminders in their bedroom of the happy times they’ve shared with family and friends it may be time to add some. Family photographs, mementos from their childhood and souvenirs from past trips can all help to create a positive mood before going to sleep.

Try a weighted blanket. Increasingly popular are blankets weighted with fillings such as beads or poly-pellets that make them significantly heavier than a normal duvet and wraps snugly around a person at night. Initially used to promote calm for those with autism, these blankets are now promoted as valuable in reducing insomnia.

And if my parent can’t sleep, then what?

Don’t force sleep. If your parent can’t sleep, they can’t sleep. Whether they want to get up again, turn on the tv or read a book it can be good for them to find a distraction until their eyes get tired and they can fall back asleep. Reading is often recommended to help you drop off at night but perhaps not the best advice for avid readers who stay up just to get to the end of their book!

Seek advice. Your parent’s GP or pharmacist can help to diagnose and treat persistent sleep problems. There are many potential causes of lack of sleep (sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome and insomnia are just a few) and if your parent’s disturbed nights are deeply affecting their daily life it could be time to consult a sleep doctor for help and advice.

Find a treatment. There are many over the counter and prescription medicines that can help to calm or conk out your parent when they go to bed. Taking care of any underlying medical conditions with the appropriate prescription could also put an end to your parent’s poor sleep. However if their disrupted nights are due to emotional or mental health issues it may be a good idea for them to see a counsellor.

Mental health charity Mind have a great checklist for identifying ways to improve sleep as well as a list of useful contacts to get in touch with if your parent’s sleep problems persist.

You may also like to take a look at a researched article on how mental health can affect sleep

Further information can be found in the Hypnotherapy Directory which has a section on insomnia.

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Japheth Mutai
Japheth Mutai
3 years ago

Hello, thank you for mentioning the use of weighted blanket for the elderly. They really work in calming and soothing them to sleep. However, maybe I should just add that weighted blankets on the elderly should be used with caution. This is because the elderly are visibly weak and may not withstand the weight from the weighted blanket. They may find it hard to remove the blanket should they be overwhelmed by their weight. This can be used with supervision from an adult.

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