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How to sleep better for seniors

There’s a common misconception that the older you are, the more you sleep: think of the stereotypical grandma nodding in her rocking chair, or grandpa snoring in front of the TV after dinner. Most seniors don’t really sleep more, nor do they need more sleep than adults 20 or 30 years younger. While adults should aim for about seven to eight hours of sleep a night, seniors may have a harder time reaching that goal.

Older adults may not sleep well for several reasons. For one thing, sleep patterns change as we age. According to the National Sleep Foundation, older people tend to get sleepy earlier and wake earlier. But they may resist this new pattern, sticking to old bedtime routines and losing out on a good night’s sleep.

Also, sleep disturbances are more common among older individuals, who may wake multiple times during the night, spending less time in deep sleep.

Many factors can disrupt our sleep, which in turn can affect our mood, our ability to concentrate and our health. Poor sleep also can reduce our ability to fight illness and increase our risk for falls or accidents. It’s important to identify causes of sleeplessness in order to improve sleep quality and overall quality of life.

The Goldilocks rule

Goldilocks was onto something: For the best sleep, conditions need to be “just right.” Is your mattress or pillow too hard, too soft or too lumpy? Is your bedroom too warm or cold? Is it dark enough? Is it noisy? Sometimes, getting a better night’s sleep is a simple matter of changing your sleep environment. Evaluate your sleep space and adjust as needed to improve your comfort. 

Simple changes in lifestyle

If your bedroom isn’t the problem, consider daily habits that might be contributing to poor sleep.

For instance, pay attention to what you eat, and when. Eating a heavy meal or drinking caffeinated beverages too close to bedtime can keep you awake. Alcohol isn’t recommended, either. While it may help you fall asleep at first, alcohol can affect your breathing and increase the need to empty your bladder, all of which might make you wake more during the night.

Exercise is recommended for better sleep – but timing is important. Exercise stimulates our mind and body, so it’s better to avoid working out late in the day.

Do you like to nap? While some people feel refreshed after a brief afternoon snooze, taking a nap in late afternoon or evening could upset your body’s rhythm and make it harder to fall asleep at bedtime. The best rule is to follow a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends or when you’re traveling.

What’s keeping you up?

Anything from arthritis pain to a frequent need to use the bathroom, to the involuntary movements associated with Parkinson’s disease can interrupt your sleep. So can certain medications, stress and anxiety, sleep apnea, allergies and asthma, Restless Leg Syndrome, menopause and thyroid problems. If you wake often during the night, or if you don’t feel rested when you wake in the morning, a good first step is to talk to your doctor about identifying a possible physical cause.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that snoring disrupts the sleep of as many as 90 million American adults (and that doesn’t include their partners!) Loud snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where breathing stops for as long as 10 to 60 seconds, multiple times during the night. You may not even be aware you have sleep apnea – but if you’ve ever been told you snore, chances are good that you do. Untreated sleep apnea puts a person at risk for cardiovascular disease, headaches, memory loss and depression. A simple sleep study can help determine if you suffer from sleep apnea and a sleep specialist can go over your options to help control the condition.

Put yourself to sleep

If counting the sheer number of tips available to help you sleep better doesn’t help, there are other practical measures you can take to improve your chances of nodding off more easily and staying asleep.

  • Use your bedroom only for sleeping. Don’t read or watch TV in bed – and especially don’t smoke in bed.
  • Ideally, your bedroom should be comfortably cool, dark and quiet.
  • Try a relaxation technique. Counting slowly and steadily might work; so could counting to 100 by threes (3, 6, 9, 12, 15, etc.) Envision yourself in a calm, pleasant setting – laying on a beach or in a sunny field, or bobbing on a placid lake, for instance. Or try consciously relaxing your body, working muscle by muscle starting at your toes.
  • Avoid using your computer, cell phone or tablet before bed, as the light from these devices may make it harder for you to fall asleep.
  • Exercise regularly, but not within three hours of your bedtime.
  • Avoid late-day consumption of heavy meals, alcohol, and foods that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee, some soft drinks, and chocolate.
  • Keep naps short and avoid napping in late afternoon or evening.

Be diligent about finding the cause of your sleep troubles and working toward a solution and you’ll be on your way to a better night’s rest – and better health.

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