“My mother has never been the best sleeper, but lately, she is struggling more than usual. I hate to put her on another prescription. Do you have any suggestions to help get better sleep for seniors?” –Sandra from Vinings

It is a myth that older people do not need much sleep; the fact is that people over 65 should get the same seven to eight hours a night as much younger adults. Unfortunately, anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of elderly people have regular struggles with sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health. Your mother is not alone; better sleep for seniors is a concern for many families. Let’s consider some of the factors that contribute to insomnia and other sleep disorders as well as tips to improve sleep habits.

The Cause

Sleep problems are so prevalent, it may be difficult to pin down any one cause. Underlying medical conditions, including gastric reflux or heartburn, urinary problems, diabetes, and even cardiac or respiratory problems can interfere with a good night’s sleep. Chronic pain is another common culprit, as is snoring or sleep apnea. Seniors may also experience restless leg syndrome which can make insomnia worse. Side effects from medications, caffeine, or alcohol may impact a senior’s ability to fall and stay asleep.

In addition, anxiety and depression can affect your loved one’s sleep cycle. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are associated with sundown syndrome and insomnia as well. With so many triggers, both physical and mental, it is a miracle anyone gets rest!

The Result

For many older adults, sleep becomes a restless cycle. Seniors may get tired in the early evening or afternoon, leading to short naps throughout the day or into the night. That can make falling asleep at bedtime a challenge. On the other side, your loved one may wake up incredibly early and be unable to go back to sleep. A few days of this disruption leads to a shift in sleep patterns that may prove tricky to get back on track. The less quality sleep your loved one has, the more likely he or she may be to have trouble concentrating or attending to even the simplest of tasks. A lack of sleep can also manifest in seniors as irritability, fatigue, and confusion.

The Remedy

Better sleep for seniors may be achieved through a combination of behavioral and environmental changes, depending on the reason for the difficulty. Here are some tips that may help your senior snooze peacefully:

  • Establish a routine schedule with the same rise-and-shine and bedtime every day
  • Avoid caffeine or alcohol in the afternoon or evening
  • Skip heavy or spicy meals which may trigger heartburn at night
  • Limit beverages after dinner, especially if overactive bladder is an issue
  • Continue with regular exercise such as walking or yoga
  • Practice meditation or other relaxation techniques
  • Create a peaceful environment with quiet evening activities such as puzzles, reading, or listening to music or books on tape
  • Make the room a bit cooler and darker if safe to do so

You may also want to arrange an appointment with your loved one’s medical provider to discuss the sleep issues and how to best address them. Keep in mind that popular prescriptions for sleep problems, including Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata, are not recommended for seniors. You may want to ask about milder sleep aids, such as melatonin, which is available over the counter, or Trazodone, an older sleep medication that is less likely to have significant side effects. Many other over-the-counter medicines contain diphenhydramine (found in Benadryl, Unisom, and other sleep aids) and should also be avoided, especially for seniors with dementia, as they may do more harm than good. It is always best to discuss any supplement or new medicine with your loved one’s physician to ensure there are no concerns or contraindications.

Hopefully, this information can help both you and your senior get some much-deserved rest.

Best of luck!



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