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Practical Caregiving

Tips for Getting a Good Night of Sleep

By Jean Donahue

When you don't sleep well, how do you feel the next day? I can tell you how I feel. I am sluggish, a little achy, my mind doesn't want to work as well as normal, and I move slower. No matter how hard I try, I can't get up to speed.

A lot of our elderly experience problems sleeping most of the time. I can't imagine having that problem most of the time. Life just wouldn't be as good as it should be. The elderly have enough problems to battle without having to battle them while being tired all the time.

Then, there is the other extreme. Some elderly sleep too much. When I was a young adult and in college, I did what every college student does. I crammed for tests and stayed up all night. After finals, all I wanted to do was sleep, but I found that after a few days I would get headaches, I felt tired all the time and generally felt awful if I didn't stop sleeping so much. A person can't function well if they get too much sleep, either.

Is there anything you, a family caregiver, can do to help your loved one sleep better?

First of all, you should watch your loved ones sleep patterns. Some of the questions you should ask are:

  • Does your loved one wake feeling good and rested?
  • Do they fall asleep when they are doing something they enjoy?
  • Does being tired affect their activities?
  • Is there any unusual behavior such as snoring, interrupted breathing, leg movements?

Before we talk about what we can do to help our loved one get a night of better sleep, we must understand some of the causes. We've heard that older people don't sleep as long at night because they don't need as much sleep as they did when they were younger. Is that true? From what I've read, it is not true. In fact, everyone I talked with in preparing this column said the elderly needed as much sleep as they did when they were a young adult - somewhere between 7-1/2 hours to 8-1/4 hours a night.

When I was researching this article, I found there are various thoughts on why the elderly don't sleep well at night. They seem to be going away from the idea that it is simply because a person is aging, although they agree that aging probably does play a part. There are also various thoughts and ideas about how to help the elderly get a good night's sleep.

Some of the problems that can cause a person to not be able to sleep are:

  • Short-term Insomnia. The problem comes when it develops into a long-term pattern. It's seems to develop into a circle with no end. Thinking of going to bed becomes a source of anxiety rather than relaxation and sleep. The anxiety alone causes the person to not be able to sleep well.
  • Medical Problems
  • Medications
  • Herbal Remedies
  • Nightly Leg Problems
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol Overuse
  • Caffeine
  • Changes in Brain Chemicals
  • Stress
  • Fatigue Itself
  • Sedentary Lifestyle
  • A need to urinate frequently at night
  • Nursing Home and Hospital Environments
  • Genetic Factors. Sleep problems tend to run in families.

Medicines may help your loved one to sleep better, but they also may be a cause of their not sleeping well. Some alternatives to medications are:

  • Lavender Oil
  • Familiar Friendly Person putting them to bed
  • Going to bed a little later each day until the desired bedtime hour is reached (resetting the biological clock to the normal 24-hour period)
  • Some believe taking Melatonin helps, but this should be monitored by a physician
  • Tai chi seems to help the elderly sleep better. It is a gentle exercise, rather than strenuous.
  • Listening to soft, slow, relaxing music at bedtime

Other ways to help your loved one sleep better:

  • Help them stay mentally active with hobbies and social activities
  • Do physical activities in late afternoon or early evening
  • Avoid caffeine 3-4 hours before bedtime.
  • Check the side effects of medications
  • Avoid over-the-counter sleeping remedies unless the doctor tells them to take them
  • Get outdoors during the day
  • Limit naps to no longer than 20 minutes
  • Meals and bedtime should be at approximately the same time each day
  • Don't let them spend too much time in bed
  • Take time to help them relax a while before bedtime
It would be nice if there was one simple solution to sleeping problems in our elderly, but there isn't. Please take a little time to evaluate your loved one's sleep habits and observe what may be causing them problems. Be sure to talk to their doctor about the problem. Don't give up. There might be a combination of things that will help them get a good nights sleep and feel good in the daytime.