With all the stress, uncertainty and tension around at the moment, it’s understandable that your sleep might be suffering. Stress is a common cause of disrupted sleep, and the coronavirus pandemic is responsible for quite a lot of that amongst older people right now.
But quite apart from any stress related to the COVID-19 situation, older people often find their sleep patterns change as they age, and that they’re not sleeping as well as they used to. It’s a myth that you need less sleep as you age – older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults, which is between seven to nine hours of sleep a night. However, for a wide variety of reasons, older people tend to get less sleep than they need, and often experience trouble falling or staying asleep. As well, older people tend to sleep less deeply than younger ones, and wake up more often throughout the night. All this can add up to poor sleep, mood changes, memory problems, lower levels of energy and excessive daytime sleepiness.
However, poor sleep doesn’t have to be a normal and accepted part of ageing, and something that you just have to put up with. There are a number of common reasons why older people experience sleep problems – but there are strategies you can use to overcome many of these issues.
The problem: Sleep disorders
Sleep disorders such as insomnia, snoring or sleep apnoea can make it very hard to get a good night’s sleep. All of these conditions are quite common in older people, and can have a variety of causes.
For all these conditions, it’s best to see a professional and get expert help. You may need to learn to sleep in a different position to keep your airway open, or use a dental device or consider surgery to help with sleep apnoea or snoring. Losing weight can also help with snoring and sleep apnoea. If your insomnia is caused by mental health issues, you may need to get professional help or specific treatment.
The problem: Movement disorders
There are a number of movement disorders that can make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep, including:
- Restless leg syndrome, where you experience uncomfortable tingling, crawling or pins and needles in the legs
- Periodic limb movement disorder, where people jerk or kick their legs frequently while sleeping
Both these conditions can cause disrupted sleep not only for the sufferer, but also their partner.
If you suspect you may have one of these conditions, see your doctor or a sleep specialist for advice. They may prescribe medication to treat the condition, or iron supplements for sufferers of restless leg syndrome, as they often show low levels of iron in their blood. Warm baths, getting enough physical activity and relaxation exercises can all help.
The problem: Medical issues
Older adults experiencing sleep problems may not actually be suffering from a sleep disorder, but rather a secondary condition in which sleep problems are merely a symptom.
Sleep issues can be caused by underlying medical conditions such as:
- Heart and lung conditions
- Urinary problems
- Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Visit your doctor to make sure your sleep problem is not caused by a common health condition such as those listed above. If it is, treating the condition will often improve your sleep.
The problem: Medication side-effects
Many medications commonly taken by older people have side-effects which can disrupt your sleep.
If you’re having difficulty sleeping and you’re taking medication, the first step is to check the list of common side effects for your medication. If sleep disorders are indeed a side-effect, it’s worth seeing your doctor to determine if anything can be done to correct this issue, or if it might be possible to switch to a different medication.
The problem: mental health concerns such as stress, anxiety, depression, grief and trauma
Experts believe that many of the sleep problems experienced by older people may be due to stress, worry and negative emotions. These types of responses to our daily life put the body into a heightened state of alertness, making it difficult to switch off and unwind. When we do fall asleep, it can be common to experience nightmares or vivid dreams.
- Try breathing exercises to help you relax or use one of the many structured relaxation exercises you can find online.
- Use journaling before you go to bed to rid your mind of all the stresses and worries of the day.
- Practice gratitude – when you go to bed, think of five positive things that happened during the day.
- Schedule “worry time”, where you allow yourself a few minutes to jot down all your worries on a piece of paper. Put the paper away somewhere and tell yourself you’ll get back to it in the morning.
- If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do a mundane task until you feel sleepy, and then return to bed.
- See a medical professional to help get conditions such as anxiety and depression under control.
- Talk to a counsellor to manage long-term stress, grief or trauma.
The problem: Not doing enough to get tired
When you retire, you’ll often find yourself with a lot more downtime than you used to have, and a lot less activity in your day. This can throw off your sleeping schedule, and you may find you’re not doing enough to make you tired and able to fall asleep at your usual time.
Keep your body and mind moving as you get older, and don’t spend the day sitting. Do some volunteer work, go to the gym, go for a walk, play a game, learn a new skill, spend time with friends and family. Whatever you do, make sure you stay active and engaged, both physically and mentally.
Good sleep hygiene
You can often sleep better simply by following good sleep hygiene practices that help you develop a pattern of healthy sleep, and by making your bed and bedroom more comfortable and conducive to sleep.
General tips to improve your sleep:
- Eliminate or reduce daytime naps, as this can prevent you from feeling sleepy at bedtime.
- Get enough exercise – but not within four hours of bedtime.
- Stop consuming caffeinated products (particularly coffee, but also tea, chocolate, energy drinks or soda) four to six hours before your planned bedtime.
- Avoid smoking close to bedtime to reduce the stimulating effects of tobacco.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal before bedtime.
- Alcohol won’t help you sleep, but will just disrupt it, so avoid drinking close to bedtime.
- Have a relaxing beverage such as herbal tea or a warm milky drink before bed (but not too close to bed or you’ll be getting up to use the toilet throughout the night).
- Try and stick to a sleep schedule, where you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Our bodies respond well to routine, and a regular sleep schedule keeps you in sync with your body’s natural circadian clock.
- Stick to a bedtime routine, which triggers your mind and body to know that it’s time to get ready for sleep. You could try reading a book, taking a warm shower or listening to relaxing music.
- Avoid the use of screens right before bedtime, as the light emitted from computers, tablets, phones or TV screens can interfere with your sleep. Aim to switch off devices at least an hour before you go to bed.
- Keep your bedroom clean and tidy, and introduce pleasant and relaxing smells, such as a drop of essential oil on your pillow.
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature that’s not too hot and not too cold.
- Limit excessive noise or light in your bedroom.
- Do a quick check of your home before bed, and make sure doors are locked, windows are closed, and all is safe.
- Keep a glass of water near your bed in case you get thirsty in the night.
- Keep a sleep diary. This can help you discover pattern of sleep and triggers for poor sleep.