By Gina Larsen, guest

At any age, an adult needs quality rest to be healthy—about eight hours per 24-hour period, to be exact. Sleep patterns change as people get older, as does a person’s ability sleep deeply and even dream. Problems with sleep in elderly people typically include difficulty falling asleep, less time spent in the deeper stages of sleep, early-morning awakening, and less total sleep time.

Why Does Sleep Matter for Older People?

1. If an older person doesn’t get enough good quality sleep and turns to sleeping pills or alcohol to fall asleep, there is a significant increase in the risk of falls and accidents.
2. Sleep deprivation causes increased sleepiness and may cause cognitive impairment.
3. Sleep apnea, when a person’s breathing is disrupted during sleep, is linked to chronic fatigue and increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes.
4. In persons with dementia, severe sleep disruption often leads to nursing home placement.

The good news is that you don’t have to simply accept disturbing sleep changes as part of aging. Sleep problems are often an indication of an underlying lifestyle, medication, or medical issue; therefore, addressing these health and wellness concerns has the double benefit of also improving one’s sleep and daytime energy levels. Consider how these factors might affect your or your loved one’s ability to get a good night’s rest:

1. Poor sleep habits:

Keep a steady schedule for going to bed and waking up. If not, you will be tinkering with your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. Daily exercise and exposure to daylight can help reinforce one’s own circadian cycle. Exposure to 30-60 minutes of sunlight in the evenings will help an older person stay up longer and avoid early-morning waking (6:30 a.m. versus 4:30 a.m., for example). If it’s hard for a person to fall asleep and get up at an appropriate time, take measures to ensure the bedroom is dark at bedtime and that sunlight streams into the room in the morning. Other schedule snafus are napping too much or staying in bed when you’re not sleeping.

2. Medications, alcohol, and caffeine:

Some drugs make it harder to fall or stay asleep, or even stimulate you to stay awake, including antidepressants (particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs), decongestants, bronchodilators, some blood pressure medicines, and corticosteroids. Alcohol may help you relax and snooze, but as you metabolize the alcohol, you will be prone to frequent waking and bathroom breaks. Avoid caffeine up for up to four hours before bedtime.

3. Worry, stress, or grief:

Aging brings many life changes. When you lose someone you love, move from your family home, or have a condition that changes your life, these issues can cause stress and even depression, which can hamper your sleep. Get help from your doctor or counselor to ease your distress.

4. Environmental factors:

Are stressors influencing your sleep-wake cycle, such as a barking dog, ringing telephone, too much light, or uncomfortable temperature in the bedroom? Make adjustments to create a more peaceful sleep setting.

5. Too much downtime:

If your activity level has decreased as you’ve gotten older, it may be more difficult to get to sleep. Activities need not be physical. Try engaging in interesting conversations, creative pursuits, or table games that engage your mind.

6. Sleep disorders:

Besides insomnia, these include sleep apnearestless legs syndromeperiodic limb movement disorder, and REM behavior disorder. Your doctor can check if you have one of these conditions and help create a plan of care.

7. Illness or disease:

Acute and chronic medical illnesses, pain, and psychiatric disorders will cause sleep disturbances. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is another common cause of sleep problems. Proper treatment or management of these health problems will help you achieve your best possible night’s sleep.

Has your loved one complained about poor sleep? Valley VNA In-Home caregivers can add healthy activity and companionship to a person’s routine. Our assisted living residents receive care and participate in activities that bring peace at the end of a pleasant day. Call us at (920) 727-5555 to learn more. Who knows? You might even sleep better at night knowing we are here to help!