Sleeping Habits and Changes

As people age, they typically require less sleep. However, they also don't sleep as deeply as they did at a younger age and are more likely to be awakened easily and frequently through the night. Consequently, they may not feel like they sleep well and are tired all the time. The best judgment of how well they sleep is to determine if they feel well rested and refreshed upon arising in the morning.

There are many factors that can affect normal sleep habits, including stress, depression, lack of activity, medications, pain, diet, and hormonal changes. These factors can be even more pronounced as people age.

Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine also affect sleep patterns. Many believe that having a glass of wine or shot of whiskey before bed will relax them. Most often, this is not the case. In fact, it can have the reverse effect and wake them up as the effects wear off. It also prevents them from reaching deeper levels of sleep. Caffeine should be restricted to the morning hours. Remember that many carbonated drinks also contain caffeine, sometimes even more than coffee. But a glass of warm milk can be quite helpful in making a person sleepy.

Medications can cause disruptions of sleep patterns. Diuretics are one of the biggest culprits because they induce frequent urination. They need to be taken very early in the day. Other medications such as decongestants, steroids, antihypertensives, and anti-Parkinson's drugs can also play havoc with sleep. Some antidepressants, pain medications, and asthma medications can also affect sleep patterns.

Boredom is often a big factor in sleep-pattern problems. If Dad spends more time in bed or napping on the couch because he has nothing else to do, he's not going to sleep well at night. If he goes to bed too early, he may not sleep as well as he thinks he should either.

Help him find something to occupy his time. If he isn't interested in finding a hobby, get him to do some chores for you. Think about things you never have time to do, such as clipping coupons, recipes, or articles. Matching socks and folding laundry may not be an interesting chore, but it is something he can do while watching TV. If he's not living with you, take the items to him. Make him feel wanted and that he's doing something to help you.

Sleeping pills are not the answer but are all too often the Band-Aid offered. They should only be used for a short time, if necessary, to break the new habit of insomnia. In older people, sleeping pills can take much longer to clear the system and can mimic signs of dementia and depression.

Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids such as “PM” products like Tylenol PM usually contain about 25 mg. of diphenhydramine, which is the active ingredient in Benedryl, an antihistamine. Antihistamines cause drowsiness, and when mixed with ingredients such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, they can help induce sleep. Other OTC meds for sleep contain ingredients such as melatonin. All OTC medications should be cleared with a physician before taking. They can have serious side effects when mixed with some prescription medications or illnesses. Again, these medications should not be taken for long periods of time.

The body has its own internal clock, and sometimes it needs to be reset. Going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning will help reset this clock. Regardless of whether Mom slept well or not, have her get up at the same time. Staying up later and getting tired can help. Tell her to resist napping, or set limits of no more than forty-five to sixty minutes each day — that includes nodding off while watching TV. Napping around 2:00–3:00 P.M. is the best time of the day to nap; later in the day will interfere with sleeping habits.

A light dinner that isn't too spicy or fatty is best. Eat several hours before bedtime and sit up to allow for proper digestion. A light snack before bedtime may help if they are likely to awaken because of hunger in the middle of the night. Exercise in the afternoon such as a walk can help encourage normal sleep at night, but don't let them exercise right before bed.

The bedroom should be just for sleeping or sex. (And yes, your parents are probably still sexually active.) Bed is not for reading or watching TV for hours before falling asleep. If you have moved your loved one, make sure she has some familiar items in the bedroom to make her feel at home and safe. These could include photos and other mementos.

Bedtime rituals such as a warm bath, good book, and soft music can lead to a restful night's sleep. Meditation, deep-breathing exercises, or other relaxation techniques may also help induce sleep.

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