It’s a commonly held misconception that you don’t need as much sleep when you get older. Perhaps people believe this to be true because seniors as a rule are earlier risers than the rest of us.
Despite this, seniors actually need no less sleep than younger adults. As a rule of thumb, most people need in the range of 7-9 hours each night. The precise amount varies depending on various factors such as your activity levels. That being said, physical changes as you age can cause disruption to your sleep quality and quantity.
Many senior citizens develop a sleep condition called insomnia, where they struggle to fall and stay asleep at night. This can cause them to feel very tired during the day and has a knock-on effect on their health. If the person also has other illnesses or health conditions, the effects of insomnia can be even worse.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of ways senior citizens and their caregivers can improve the quality and. Duration of their nightly sleep. Many are common-sense lifestyle changes that don’t require you to spend any money at all. Others may require you to purchase a particular sleep aid or update your sleeping environment to make it more conducive to restful sleep.
When you’re trying to understand how to make your sleep problems better, it’s important to get an idea of why your age has such an impact on how you sleep. This means that you’ll be able to come up with an action plan to tackle any problems in the way that best suits you and your health status.
How does age change the way we sleep?
The overall duration of nightly sleep we require changes through our childhood until we become adults. At birth, babies could sleep for up to 17 hours out of every 24. Once we grow into adults, we require about 7-9 hours each day to function well and maintain good health.
Although many people believe that seniors need less sleep than younger adults, the truth is that people still need 7-9 hours per night even in older age. That doesn’t mean that getting enough sleep is an easy feat for seniors, as this can become more challenging for various reasons.
In each of our brains, there are many neurons which help to regulate the depth and duration of our nightly sleep. As we get older, some of them die off. These brain changes are one of the main reasons that sleep regulation can become so difficult. This means it’s harder to drift off and makes it more likely that you’ll wake up during phases of deep sleep.
Generally, older adults spend more time drifting off to sleep than the rest of the adult population. They’re also likely to clock up fewer hours of deep, restorative sleep. Many seniors find that they experience unwanted night-time waking.
There are other issues at play here too. As we get older, we’re more likely to develop health conditions that negatively impact our sleep. Joint and back pain can make it harder to fall and stay asleep due to discomfort. For women, the menopause can cause ongoing issues with getting enough sleep. These health complaints are compounded by the fact that many of the medicines given to treat them can also make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
As you get older, activity levels generally dwindle. This can also wreak havoc with sleep, as plenty of exercise can help to keep you healthy and make it easier to regulate your sleep patterns. That being said, overdoing it isn’t helpful either. A moderate amount of sport or other activity lets you make sure that you are physically tired enough to nod off easily at the end of the day.
Advancing age can also be an emotional time, which isn’t necessarily conducive to getting great sleep. Some people find the end of their working life a stress-inducing event. Unfortunately, seniors are more likely to face the deaths of friends and loved ones as the people around them get older too. It’s known that grief and reduced levels of socialising can cause sleep problems to arise or make them worse.
Why is sleep important for seniors?
Everyone needs enough good-quality sleep, and this is no different for seniors. Occasional poor sleep won’t cause any long-term harm, but persistent sleep deprivation can cause myriad health, cognitive and emotional issues.
When you don’t get enough sleep over a prolonged period, you may struggle to absorb and recall new facts and information. You may also develop a mental illness or struggle to regulate your moods and make decisions.
It’s also known that sleep deprivation can make you more likely to fall or injure yourself, for example as the result of a household or road traffic accident. It also raises the risk of you getting one of the more serious health complaints common in seniors such as cancer.
When you’re an older adult, this is worth taking seriously as you are at a greater risk of becoming unwell anyway because of your age. Lack of sleep can make some of the social, health and emotional challenges facing seniors more difficult.
Sleep quality vs. sleep quantity?
Most people know that getting the right amount of sleep is important. The quality of your sleep is harder to measure, but if you still feel tired despite clocking up enough sleep hours this may indicate a problem with sleep quality.
If you take a long time to nod off at night and wake frequently, this counts as poor quality sleep. Even if you sleep for a long time, you won’t feel properly restored and able to function well during the day. So, it’s very important for seniors to take steps to improve the quality of sleep if this is an issue and not just focus on getting more hours overall. Both factors are of equal import when it comes to maintaining good physical and mental health and quality of life.
Sleep problems and disorders in seniors
Older people are at a greater risk of developing sleep issues and disorders than the rest of the population. Some of these problems affect sleep only, while others pose a more serious underlying health threat.
Insomnia is a very common sleep complaint, and you’re even more likely to be affected as an older adult. Generally, more women complain of insomnia than men. The symptoms of insomnia include:
- Taking a long time to drift off to sleep
- Frequent night waking
- Rising earlier than you want to
- Less overall sleep quantity
The condition can be difficult and frustrating to cope with at night. However, it can also make the daytime more challenging. If you have insomnia, you’re more likely to feel exhausted during the day. This can be debilitating. Many seniors make up for lost sleep at night by napping. However, this can lead to a vicious circle as it’s then more difficult to get to sleep when bedtime rolls round again.
If you’re exhausted due to your struggles with insomnia, you may feel too worn out to take part in your usual activities in the day and evening. This could lead to you becoming isolated from your friends and family, which can have a negative impact on your mental and emotional wellbeing.
The good news is that insomnia is usually a treatable condition. There are various therapeutic options available and your doctor may suggest medicines or supplements to help you cope. You may also want to make simple changes to your lifestyle to reduce the severity of your insomnia.
Many seniors (and their partners) report troublesome snoring, as it’s particularly common in this age group. As you get older, the muscles that support your airways lose strength. While there is no inherent danger in being a snorer, it may signal that there’s something more serious wrong such as a problem with your heart.
Sleep apnea causes lapses in your breathing during your sleep because your airways temporarily collapse. This causes arousal in your brain to allow it to restore your regular breathing pattern. This is one of the leading causes of poor-quality sleep-in seniors.
Therefore, there’s a clear link between sleep apnea and insomnia in older people. So, you may feel completely exhausted during daytime hours.
Excessive tiredness in combination with loud or frequent snoring are key indicators that a person has developed sleep apnea.
Although anyone can develop sleep apnea, seniors are more at risk because the muscles surrounding their airways are weaker. This has a profound effect on sleep, with affected people getting less deep and REM sleep in total than the rest of the population.
If you have sleep apnea, you’re also more likely to have other health issues linked with the condition such as stroke or abnormally high blood pressure. So, if you have reason to think you may have sleep apnea, you should see your doctor promptly to have these ruled out and get your condition treated as quickly as you can.
Your doctor may recommend some lifestyle changes to reduce the severity of your sleep apnea. They may also fit you with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to help regulate your breathing while you sleep.
Restless leg syndrome, or RLS for short, causes unpleasant sensations in your legs, particularly when you’re trying to fall asleep at night. Many people with the condition describe these sensations as creeping or tingling. This can cause an unbearable need to move the legs to try and get rid of the feeling, making it very difficult to relax enough to fall asleep.
Older people are more likely to get RLS than younger adults. It’s often caused or made worse by low iron levels. So, your doctor may prescribe you additional iron to help combat your symptoms.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) can cause you to make involuntary movements with your limbs during sleep. It may make nodding off very challenging and could wake you up frequently.
If your movements are very violent, this may make you fall out of your bed. For seniors, this poses more of a hazard as they are more likely to be seriously injured following such an event.
The condition can be managed with regular prescribed medication. There are also some lifestyle changes which might be helpful depending on your individual circumstances and health status.
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder which makes an affected person abruptly fall asleep without any prior warning. They may feel sleepier than a person without narcolepsy. The condition is particularly hazardous because a person may fall asleep in dangerous circumstances, for example behind the wheel of a car.
There is no known cure for the condition, although it may be improved by taking certain medicines.
It’s normal for older adults to feel very tired during the day. This doesn’t qualify as a sleep disorder, but it could be a sign of an underlying issue with their sleep. It could signal that the person:
- Is getting poor sleep quality or quantity
- Lacks routine
- Has a diagnosable sleep disorder
- Is suffering from medication side effects
- Has an underlying health problem
Feeling tired in the day can lead to a wide range of symptoms, such as:
- Annoyance and irritability
- Problems regulating mood
- Poor concentration
Daytime exhaustion isn’t good for overall quality of life. If you feel tired all the time, you may not participate in the day-to-day activities that you usually enjoy and could become isolated from your social circle.
Are sleep and Alzheimer’s disease linked?
The neurological condition Alzheimer’s disease is one of the leading causes of dementia in seniors. It gets progressively worse over time. People with the condition have problems with recall, thinking and speaking. Although some people start to develop Alzheimer’s while they are still middle aged, most people with the condition will get it in their senior years.
Alzheimer’s can change the way a person sleeps. Some people with the condition may sleep excessively, while others may struggle to get enough. It can also make a person wake up too often at night and could cause them to wander or become disorientated.
Caregivers often experience sleep disturbances due to the stress of caring for someone with the condition. They may also have to wake in the night to provide assistance.
There are measures you can take to prevent someone with Alzheimer’s disease becoming injured or lost during the night. For example, you could:
- Maintain a clear floor space in their bedroom to prevent tripping
- Keep medication in a locked cupboard or box
- Secure external doors
- Fit stairgates
- Place grab rails near the bed to prevent falls when getting in or out
- Keeping seniors safe at night
If a senior person has a mobility issue or disorder such as dementia, there may be hazards in their bedroom which could cause them to fall or otherwise become injured.
It’s important to assess a person’s bedroom in this situation to try and minimize any risk and keep them safe. Adaptations may need to be made to prevent common injuries such as trips or falls and to stop them from wandering into unsafe situations should they become confused.
Preventing night-time falls
Although anyone could potentially fall at night, seniors are at the greatest risk even if they are otherwise healthy. As a result, they could be seriously or even fatally injured. The most common area of the house for seniors to fall over is the bedroom, perhaps from trying to walk around in the night. Particular hot-spots for falls are:
- Loose edges of rugs or carpet
- Charger leads or cables
- Sleeping pets
With some careful planning, you can eliminate some of these hazards to make the likelihood of a fall much smaller. Taping down loose rugs and cables is one option, or you could invest in anti-slip rugs which are less dangerous than regular ones because they are harder to trip on. It’s important to tidy the floor regularly to keep it clear. You may decide that it’s safer for any pets to sleep elsewhere in the house.
You can also take steps to improve lighting at night. Nowadays you can buy special lights which detect movement, so they switch on automatically when you’re walking around. Some also switch themselves off when movement has stopped for a while, so you don’t need to turn them off manually when you go back to bed.
If a person has a neuro-degenerative disorder such as Alzheimer’s, this can cause them to become confused and wander during the night. Unfortunately, some seniors with these conditions manage to wander out of their homes and are unable to find their way back due to disorientation. They could become injured, for example by attempting to cross a busy road, or may get hypothermia if they are not appropriately dressed for being outdoors. This is a particular risk in winter.
It’s known that seniors at risk of night-time wandering are less likely to do so if they take part in plenty of activity during the day. Keeping external doors and windows locked during the night and giving the person a personal alarm to wear to locate them in an emergency may also be suitable options.\
Sleep tips for Seniors
Fortunately, there are several tried-and-tested methods that seniors can use to help them sleep better and longer. Some are common-sense measures that involve basic lifestyle and behaviour changes. You may have heard this being called ‘good sleep hygiene’. Here are our expert-approved ways to get a good night’s sleep:
1. Eat better
The quality of your diet and how well you sleep are closely linked. If you’re a senior struggling to get good sleep, focus on eating a nutritious and balanced diet. In particular, you should try to limit your intake of ‘bad’ fats and sugar.
Some people find that they sleep worse after a big meal because it can cause indigestion and make nodding off harder. To combat this, you might prefer to shift your main meal to lunch time and have something lighter for your last meal of the day like soup or a salad.
It’s known that drinking too much alcohol or consuming a lot of caffeine is bad for sleep. If you don’t want to cut them out entirely, reducing your intake should help. Try to avoid caffeine after lunch time and don’t drink alcohol for a couple of hours before you go to bed if you’re having sleep difficulties.
2. Get active
Keeping fit helps to keep you in all-round good health. It can also act as an effective preventative against some of the illnesses that cause poor sleep in seniors. You don’t need to join a gym or take part in heavy workouts to reap the benefits. Even a little gentle exercise such as a daily walk can work wonders and is a safe way for seniors to keep physically active. It’s recommended that you try to do this outside in the sunshine when you can, as this will help to regulate your sleep cycle.
3. Reduce your stress levels
Being stressed is known to contribute to problems falling and staying asleep in older people. So, you can help to improve your sleep by taking steps to minimize stress.
If your stress is only mild, self-help alone may be enough to get it down to a healthy level. Meditation and gentle exercise such as yoga can be very beneficial when it comes to stress busting. However, if you feel that your stress levels are very high or accompanied by feelings of anxiety or depression, you may benefit from seeing a counsellor or therapist for help.
4. Stick to a sleep schedule
It’s known that keeping to regular waking and sleeping times is good for helping beat sleep problems. While this may seem restrictive, keeping a regular bedtime all the time, including on the weekend, is important for maintaining a regular, healthy sleep cycle.
5. Try not to nap
It’s common for older people to take naps during the day to try and help control their daytime tiredness. However, while this may make you feel better in the short-term, this habit can really disrupt healthy sleep patterns. Ideally, you should avoid taking naps altogether or at least try to limit them to a maximum of 20 minutes at a time.
6. Make changes to your bedroom
If you want to sleep well at night, try to make sure your room is cool, cave dark and that there are no disruptive sounds such as a ticking clock. These conditions are known to be the best for restful sleep.
7. Don’t use your bedroom to hang out
Many people use their bedroom as an all-purpose room for reading, watching TV or enjoying hobbies. However, this can stop you from associating your bedroom with going to sleep. So, you should keep your bedroom just for sleeping in so that your brain recognises it as a sleepy cue.
8. Have a routine
Strong sleep associations help our brains understand when it’s time to wind down for bed. Ultimately, what you do at bedtime comes down to what suits you and your lifestyle. However, make sure you stick to the same routine every time you go to bed.
9. Cut down on screens
It’s a fact of modern life that many of us spend a long time looking at screens on our phones or other devices. Unfortunately, screens emit blue light which is known to be disruptive to sleep because it can overstimulate our brains.
It’s recommended that you avoid this problem by refraining from using screens for an hour or more before you want to go to sleep.
10. Take a shower or bath
It’s known that bathing in warm water before you go to bed is a good way to get yourself nice and sleepy. This trick works because your body will cool off quickly once you’re done. When we fall asleep, our temperature naturally lowers, and this helps to make the effect more pronounced. If you have restless leg syndrome, you might find this tip especially effective.
11. Limit fluids before bed
If you find your sleep is being interrupted by frequent bathroom trips like many older people, it may help to reduce the amount of fluid you drink in the run-up to bedtime. Of course, it’s important to drink enough water to maintain optimum health. So, try replacing these extra fluids during the day instead.
12. See your doctor
If you’re an older person with ongoing sleep problems, you would be wise to consult your doctor as soon as you can. Sometimes, sleep problems in seniors indicate a serious underlying health concern. By treating any associated illness, you may find your sleep improves as a result.
It’s also possible that your issues could be caused by medication you are taking. Your doctor will be able to advise you whether a switch in medication or a different dosage may improve things.
Exercises to sleep better
Although exercise is a fantastic way for seniors to improve their sleep, many avoid it because they have mobility issues or joint pain that make moving around difficult. However, it’s worth persisting in trying to find a way of keeping active as this helps to produce chemicals important for regulating sleep.
Fortunately, there are plenty of gentle ways of getting fit which are especially good for older people. If you are aware that you have a health condition, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you to exercise. Our expert-approved exercises for seniors include:
Swimming: Swimming gives you a gentle cardiovascular workout and is often suitable even if you have back or joint problems. You may even be able to find an aqua fitness class with the needs of older people in mind.
Bowls: Bowling on a lawn requires a surprising amount of walking, which will help you to improve your fitness over time. You’ll also meet other like-minded people as it is a tremendously sociable activity.
Walking: Any amount of walking will benefit your sleep, especially if you do it outside in the sunshine. You could walk alone or join a ramblers’ society to meet new friends at the same time.
Cycling: Cycling is a suitable and healthy exercise for seniors, either on a regular bike or a stationary exercise bike. As long as the person has good balance, cycling is a good way to stay fit.
Your bedroom and sleep
You can get yourself one step closer to a healthy sleep schedule by making sure that your bedroom is as soothing and tranquil as possible. First, make sure that your bed feels comfy to sleep in and isn’t causing you any aches and pains. The most important thing to consider is whether your mattress is supportive.
If your mattress doesn’t adequately suit your needs, you may find it difficult to fall and stay asleep. It may also cause your back and/or joints to hurt. The impact can be particularly profound on older adults who are more likely to have painful joint conditions in any event.
If your mattress is older than 8 years, is sagging or feels uncomfortable, it’s time to replace it. Make sure you choose a new one that can support your spine and doesn’t put unnecessary pressure on your joints. Pressure-relieving materials such as latex or memory foam are good choices for seniors.
Many old people choose orthopedic mattresses thinking that they will help ease the discomfort of painful conditions. However, orthopedic mattresses are far too firm for the majority of people to sleep on in comfort. In fact, choosing an orthopedic mattress may even increase your discomfort. So, unless you’ve been advised to sleep on one by your doctor, you’ll probably be better off with a mattress that’s medium-firm.
It may also be worth buying some soft and snuggly bedding to make your bed a really lovely place to settle down for the night. Although they are pricier, you may also decide to purchase an adjustable bed frame. These are a good choice for older people because you can adjust them to relieve discomfort and make getting in and out of bed easier.
Apart from your bed, there are other key areas to focus on too. Make sure your room is maintained at a cool but comfortable temperature as this can help you to sleep. Use air conditioning If necessary. If you live in an urban area, you may need blackout curtains to stop street lighting from interrupting your sleep.
Therapy for better sleep
If your sleep problems are caused or exacerbated by emotional or mental health difficulties, you may benefit from talking therapy. This can help you to address the root cause of your insomnia, especially if your healthcare team has been unable to find any underlying medical issue.
Even if your mental health condition isn’t severe or is sporadic, this could have a serious impact on your sleep. So, prioritizing your mental health on a par with your physical health is a good way of tackling insomnia.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
It’s known that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, is very good at tackling sleep problems and disorders such as insomnia. For many people, it will be more effective than addressing the sleep problem with medication.
CBT tackles sleep problems by addressing and changing unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving. You can access this type of therapy on your own or in a group of other people with similar sleep problems.
If you are unable to get to therapy sessions for any reason such as disability, there are various online services offering CBT services from the comfort of your own home.
Fortunately, CBT is suitable for everyone including seniors. It is totally safe and there have been no reported negative side effects, unlike some other ways of treating insomnia such as medication.
Sleep Products for older people
If you choose, you can buy various items which should help you to sleep better as you age. You may need products that focus on improving the length and quality of your sleep. Alternatively, you might require items that make your bedroom safer in case of issues such as night wandering. You may wish to invest in:
Curtains: You can buy special blackout curtains which prevent any light from getting into your bedroom during the night. This creates total darkness, which can help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.
Light alarms: There are alarm clocks available which wake you with a gradually brighter natural light. Many seniors find this a more pleasant way to wake up than being woken by a loud alarm.
Mattress: If pain is stopping you from falling or staying asleep, your mattress may be to blame. To help improve the situation, try to buy a pressure relieving mattress. Memory or latex foam are great choices for those with joint pain.
White noise machine: Some people find that white noise machines help them sleep better, as they help to drown out night-time noises that may wake you. Alternatively, you can download a white noise app on your mobile device.
Can seniors take melatonin supplements?
Our brains make melatonin to help maintain a regular sleep pattern. The amount of melatonin made increases around bedtime to help get you ready for sleep.
You may want to take extra melatonin as a means of improving insomnia or other sleep problems but be unsure whether they are safe for seniors. Fortunately, melatonin supplements are usually safe for older adults to take and can help you to sleep longer and better.
However, there isn’t currently any regulation of melatonin supplements. So, you should always take precautions to make sure whatever you’re taking is safe. The best way to do this is to consult your healthcare provider, taking the packaging with you. They will be able to tell you how much to take and how often to improve your sleep without any unwanted side effects.
Can seniors take sleeping tablets?
Usually, sleeping tablets are not considered to be the best method of treating sleep problems in seniors. Generally, sleep experts agree that lifestyle treatments and addressing underlying health concerns is the best way to treat insomnia and other problems in seniors.
Doctors don’t usually recommend sleeping tablets for seniors as they are only designed to treat the issue in the short-term. Any underlying reason for the person’s sleep problems will continue to be untreated. Some sleep medications can also be addictive.
As many seniors are already taking medication for other conditions, this can cause problems with taking sleeping tablets. Many cannot be taken with other medications without causing serious side effects. Sleeping tablets are also known to cause confusion and balance issues in older adults, which could increase the risk of injury and falls.
For these reasons, it’s important to get any medicinal sleep aids OK-ed by your doctor before taking them to make sure that they don’t pose a risk to your health and are suitable for seniors.
Extra Sleep Resources for Seniors
We hope that the expert-approved tips and strategies shared in this article have given you plenty of ideas to help you sleep longer and better. If you’re a caregiver, you will hopefully feel better equipped to support senior citizens in getting a better night’s sleep. It doesn’t end here, as there are many websites and organisations which can give you support and guidance if you’re a senior with sleeping difficulties. Useful additional resources include:
The Mayo Clinic is well-respected as a source of reliable medical knowledge. It has various resources focusing on helping older adults sleep better.
The Alzheimer’s Association is a community that provides help, support and advice to people living with the condition and those that care for them.
The National Sleep Foundation provide a wealth of knowledge to help people including seniors improve their sleeping habits.
The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation aims to help people with the condition improve their quality of life. This includes offering support with sleep problems arising from their symptoms.
The American Sleep Apnea Foundation should be your first port of call for support and advice if your sleep problems are caused by sleep apnea.