Better Sleep for Seniors

5 Practical Tips to Help You Sleep Better
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Quick summary

As we age, the architecture of our sleep changes dramatically. The deep, delectable sleep in which we're oblivious to the outside world and its sounds, called slow wave sleep, becomes shorter and more elusive. Our total sleep time also declines. Infants sleep an average of 11.6 hours per night, but by the time we hit 70, our nighttime sleep has shrunk by nearly half, to an average of 6.6 hours.

Just because older people sleep less doesn't necessarily mean they have sleep problems. But if someone you're caring for complains of not sleeping well, having to get up frequently at night, or not waking up feeling refreshed, consider taking him or her to visit to the doctor. A thorough exam can unearth problems that can interfere with sleep, including pain from arthritis or other chronic conditions.

Medications can also interfere with sleep. Diuretics, typically used to reduce fluid retention in people with congestive heart failure, can cause a need to urinate frequently in the middle of the night if taken too late. Beta blockers, a class of heart medications, can cause insomnia, as can medications used to treat high blood pressure and thyroid problems. See our checklist for more about sleep problems.

Some sleep strategies that can help:

Get them moving

If the seniors you're caring for are able to exercise, one of the best things you can do is to get them moving. A study that compared 53 physically active older women to 48 wo men who didn't exercise showed that the exercisers slept an average of 50 minutes more each night than the sedentary group. What's more, the physically active women rated their sleep quality at 8.3 out of 10 compared to the nonexercisers who rated their sleep satisfaction at only 5.8.

Taking a brisk walk each day or finding an exercise class that's geared toward older adults can make a big difference. Remind them not to exercise vigorously too close to bedtime, though, because it might give them too much energy to relax and fall asleep. Some light stretching before bedtime is fine.

Help them change their daily routine

There are a number of changes seniors can make in their daily routine that can make going to sleep and staying asleep easier. If they nap during the day, encourage them to limit naps to no more than 30 minutes and to nap only in the early afternoon. If they didn't sleep well, it's better not to sleep in.

Advise them to eat a light evening meal. Choosing a salad or fish and vegetables instead of a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs can result in more restful sleep. Similarly, cutting down on liquids during and after dinner can help reduce middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom.

Also, help them develop an evening routine that doesn't demand too much thought or worry. Filling out health insurance forms, making potentially upsetting phone calls, and similarly unpleasant tasks should be avoided before bedtime. Such activities can frustrate anyone and make it hard to sleep.

If they enjoy playing cards or board games, you may want to join them for a hand before bedtime to help them unwind. If they're avid readers, encourage them to crack open a book. (Sleep experts say it's best to read somewhere other than in bed. The bed, they say, should be used only for sleeping and sex.)

Try mind games -- and block out the noise

If all else fails and they still worry about being able to get to sleep, try a tactic researchers call paradoxical intention. Instead of worrying about whether they can get to sleep, have them think about trying to stay up as late as they think they can -- and then go to bed. It's a slight shift in thinking that often works.

If they're open to the idea, biofeedback can help her learn how to reduce her blood pressure and relax her muscles, which can contribute to more restful sleep. A trained biofeedback practitioner can teach her how to relax through visualization of a calming scene, using what's known as guided imagery.

Also, if they're sensitive to noise and aren't bothered by wearing ear plugs, suggest they give them a try. There are many varieties, at a wide range of prices, available at drugstores.

Make sleep medication a last -- and temporary -- resort

Experts agree that older adults should not take sleep medication on a long-term basis and should be monitored closely, since it can be habit forming.

Be aware that th e dosage for sleep medication should generally be lower in the elderly than in younger adults, since older people metabolize medication differently. Ask the doctor what the appropriate geriatric dose should be.

Laurie Udesky

Laurie Udesky has covered health and medical issues for National Public Radio (NPR); produced features for "Crossroads," a cross-cultural program that aired on NPR; and served as a reporter or editor for medical trade journals such as TB Monitor and AIDS Alert. See full bio

over 2 years, said...

My client gets up at 11 he is mean and refuses to try to s;eep he thinks it is noon when it is midnight i was put in the home to keep him from a nursing home but he refuses to believe that

about 5 years, said...

I think there is no help for my Mom. She is 96 and can no longer stand unassisted. She sleeps during the day and from 12 midnight to 5 am she is up for either a small Snack or bathrm. She is on thyroid and blood pressure meds. After she eats a meal she gets really sleepy.

about 5 years, said...

Dinner meals should be taken 3 hours before sleep. During night, drinking hot milk helps to get good sleep.

almost 7 years, said...

Light meals and distractions from the routine seem like positive steps. Should work for the caregivers as well as those receiving the care!

about 7 years, said...

Besides never sleeping myself I am now hearing from my mom that she simply does not sleep and she says she has to get up to go to the bathroom numerous times every night.. The hardest part is she will not take medication and she will not go to the doctor.. Since she is now finally at 82 retired I think alot of her issue is she does not feel busy and needed so she is not active enough mentally or physically to get worn out so she would sleep plus now she is taking fulltime care of my dad who is 88. Any sleep suggestions besides pills would be great to hear about. I will try the with Dr. Lawless.. The other twist to this is our company is TenderCare Beds. We make patented headboards for hospital beds to make them pretty and look normal. Our customers say they "sleep better" once we install them...ha! Luckily mom and dad do not need hospital beds but isn't it interesting how we help people sleep better but my own mom just can't get a decent night's sleep!! Got to keep a sense of humor to make all of this not be overwhelming!

about 7 years, said...

I love your website, its very helpful.

over 7 years, said...

Very useful guide how to live healthy.

almost 10 years, said...

I have to reccomend the Sleep Series at - it's Dr. Phil's mentor Dr. Lawless and I hadn't slept in over 20 years without using some kind of sleeping pill or another. Now I'm sleeping without anything except the CD - and I'm rested now - I think I went through the last 20 years in a fog. Thanks Dr. Lawless and Dr. Phil!

almost 10 years, said...

What about the reverse? Sometimes Daddy sleeps until supper time. We can't get him up, when we try he says he just going to lie there until he dies. Around 4 or 4:30 he will get up because he is starving. Anyone else experienced this?