Top tips for improving sleep in older people

Sleep patterns change as you age, because the body produces lower levels of growth hormone, which reduces the amount of slow wave or deep sleep people tend to get.

With age, we also produce less melatonin, leading people to wake up more often during the night. Older people also find that they want to go to sleep earlier at night and wake up earlier in the morning.

Despite these biological changes, there are other causes of insomnia and sleep problems in older people, such as:

  • Poor sleeping environment, which can include a poor sleeping routine (going to be at irregular hours), drinking alcohol before bed and falling asleep in front of the television.
  • Pain, which can interrupt sleep. Other issues, such as the need to urinate during the night, arthritis or rheumatism, asthma, indigestion, and dementia/Alzheimer’s can affect sleep.
  • Medicine can impair sleep and older people often take more medicine than the young.
  • No exercise. If your elderly relative is too sedentary, they might never feel sleepy, or alternatively, they might feel tired all the time. Regular exercise during the day can help older people to sleep well, but make sure your older relative does not exercise just before bedtim, as this can have the opposite effect
  • Stress, from major events, such as the death of a loved one, or moving house, can cause stress, which can lead to poor sleep patterns, which can often lead to further stress, so it becomes a vicious circle.
  • Sleep disorders, such as snoring, can significantly affect elderly people’s sleep. 

So how can you get a better night’s sleep?

  • Keep busy. Social activities, seeing the family, volunteering or learning something new can all help exercise the mind and tire it out for the night
  • Try to be less anxious. Get your elderly relative to chat to someone about their problems and put their worries into perspective. This will reduce the amount of time they lie awake at night worrying.
  • Exercise regularly, as it produces endorphins that can improve mood and can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Swimming, walking, dancing, bowling, golf or cycling are all good exercises to consider.
  • Get out into the sunshine. Sunshine regulates melatonin levels and hence affects sleep cycles. Try to encourage your elderly parent to get outside for an hour or so every day. When they are at home, open the curtains during the day and move their chair into a sunny spot of the room
  • Don’t watch TV or look at a tablet or computer for an hour before bedtime. Doing these activities can suppress melatonin levels and affect subsequent sleep.
  • Beware caffeine, alcohol and smoking. All of these are stimulants and will interfere with sleep quality.
  • Keep your relative’s bedroom dark cool and peaceful and obviously, it helps if their bed is comfortable. Noise, light and heat pollution can all have negative effects on sleep. A sleep mask can help block out light.
  • Keep a regular bedtime where possible. Encourage your older relative to go to bed and wake up at similar times every day, including weekends.
  • Does their partner snore? Use earplugs, or separate rooms!
  • Create bedtime rituals, such as having a bath, reading a good book, or listening to music. Deep breathing and meditation techniques can also be a big help in getting off to sleep.
  • Try to encourage your older relative not to take sleeping pills. Many are addictive, have other side effects and should not be used regularly.
  • Have a snack before bed to stave off hunger pangs, but don’t eat spicy food or big meals. A biscuit, or some warm milk or cocoa will help with sleep. A large curry probably won’t!
  • Try not to drink too much. As you age, you need to urinate more frequently, so try not to drink too much before bed

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