Sleep, they say, is a wonder drug. It supports essential bodily and mental functions and without it neither we nor our clients or aging family members could function – or even survive. Sleep impacts brain functions such as memory and learning, as well as functions of the body including muscle repair, strengthening the immune system and release of hormones that regulate growth and appetite. Having a poor sleep pattern is linked to an increase in mortality and other health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and mood disorders. Yet for many people – our clients, family members and even ourselves, a good night’s sleep can be elusive and hard to obtain.

Help for Aging Clients and Loved Ones

Like so many other things, our sleep patterns change as we get older. As people age, they will often have a harder time falling asleep, and more trouble staying asleep than when they were younger. According to the WebMD article, Simple Steps Can Combat Sleep Problems in Elderly, “Common — and normal — sleep problems plague up to 40% of the elderly and include light sleep, frequent waking, and daytime fatigue. Among older people, there is also a decrease in the deep-sleep stage and an increase in periods of wakefulness during the night.” This kind of sleep disruption is not necessarily a problem to solve, particularly if the older person is taking a nap during the day. However, if sleep problems result in the older person getting less than 6-7 hours of sleep daily, then it is important to address the issue.

Common disorders that will impact sleep include sleep apnea (a temporary cessation of breathing), and restless leg syndrome. Each of these disorders responds to medical treatment that can improve the older person’s sleep. Poor sleep can also be the result of other health issues including Alzheimer’s Disease. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “People suffering from AD often sleep a lot during the day and have trouble staying asleep at night. Patients in the early stages of AD may sleep more than usual or wake up disoriented. As the disease progresses, patients may begin to sleep during the day and awaken frequently throughout the night. Patients with more advanced Alzheimer’s rarely sleep for long periods and nap irregularly throughout the day.”

Whatever the underlying reason behind a poor sleep/wake cycle there are things that can be done to help older adults get the sleep they need. In the Medscape article, Treatment of Insomnia in the Geriatric Patient, the following suggestions are made to improve “sleep-hygiene:”

  • Maintain a regular bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
  • Increase exposure to bright light during the day.
  • Avoid exposure to bright light during the night.
  • Get regular exercise (preferably in the morning or early afternoon).
  • Create opportunities for social stimulation during the day.
  • Avoid heavy meals within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid large amounts of fluids 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  • Create a cool, dark, comfortable, sleep environment.
  • Try using a free White Noise app to create a more soothing environment.

Help for Caregivers

Caregivers tend to have a lot on their plates and there are times when getting the necessary amount of sleep may seem nearly impossible. But we all know what it feels like when we don’t get enough sleep. We feel sluggish and have a difficult time staying focused on tasks. We may have a slight headache and feel irritable. After several nights of sleep deprivation, symptoms worsen. We may experience memory problems, blurred vision and slower reaction times which can lead to accidents and injury. We may have difficulty concentrating and an inability to think clearly. Our immune system weakens with lack of sleep, which increases our chance of becoming sick. Sleep deprivation can also make us look, and feel, older.

We all know the saying about not being able to care for others if we don’t first, take care of ourselves. The health and wellbeing of those for whom you care is dependent on your ability to function properly, so please – get the sleep that you need.