How to Help My Elderly Parent Sleep

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If your mom or dad developed sleeping problems when they reached old age, they’re not alone. Sleep problems are pretty common in senior citizens and there are a lot of reasons why. Some are completely natural while others can indicate an underlying health issue. Knowing how to help an elderly parent sleep is important. It not only makes them feel better, but it also puts your mind at ease.

Here’s what you need to know to help your elderly parent sleep: Normal age-related changes disrupt sleep in the elderly and can be worked through. But there may be an underlying medical condition that’s causing the problem so it’s important to know when to see a doctor.

If you’ve tried a few approaches and mom or dad still isn’t sleeping, it’s probably a good time to get a doctor involved. The good news is that once any underlying medical condition is resolved, things should return to normal.

Sleep changes as we age and it isn’t always easy to keep up. Knowing what’s normal and what isn’t is key to helping your mom or dad get a good night’s sleep again.

How Does Sleep Change as We Age?

There are two ways that sleep changes as we get older: how many hours we need and the quality of sleep we get.

Newborns and infants need about 14 hours of sleep a day. School-aged children and teenagers should get around 10 hours a night, though the sleep-wake cycle shifts to a later time in adolescence. Why do younger people need more sleep? It’s pretty simple, really. Physical growth and mental development happen so quickly when we’re young, our bodies just need more rest.

Adults of all ages need around eight to nine hours a night. One change when we get older, though, is the sleep-wake cycle shifts again. Senior citizens begin to naturally fall asleep and wake up earlier.

Quality of sleep changes as we get older, too. Some young children and teenagers can sleep through anything but we tend to wake up more easily in adulthood. This is partially because of our responsibilities, schedules, and anxieties changing as we get older. But, in my research, I found that there’s evidence that senior citizens sleep lighter and get less sleep than they should.

So, is this normal? Somewhat. There are changes that occur in the aging process that cause sleep troubles for the elderly. But there are a lot of other things that can cause sleep problems for them, too.

The Changing Sleep-Wake Cycle Can Be to Blame

As I said, the sleep-wake cycle changes as we get older. It’s possible that your mom or dad is just having a hard time adjusting. They may not even realize that an early bedtime is a natural part of aging. Maybe they have a routine that they’re followed for years, say, staying up to watch the news at eleven o’clock or reading for an hour before heading to bed. All of a sudden, the routine isn’t working anymore.

There are some pretty simple things to try if this is the problem. Shifting to an earlier bedtime is the easiest solution. It’s best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. They should also avoid eating, reading, or watching TV in bed. Encourage them to only use the bedroom for sleeping.

Caffeine is sometimes necessary to deliver a pick-me-up during the day but should be avoided for about eight hours or so before bedtime. A cup of coffee in the morning and one around lunchtime is ideal.

If your parent has been laying in bed for a half hour or so, struggling to fall asleep, the best thing to do is actually get up and go to another room. Tell them to listen to quiet music or read and then try going back to bed. Avoid watching TV and other screens during this time because it stimulates the brain and can keep them up even longer.

If they need a nap during the day, it shouldn’t be any longer than 20 minutes or so. Just enough to get them through feeling tired. Then, encourage them to get up and move. Sometimes, a simple walk around the block is enough. The physical activity wakes them up and the sunshine lets their body know that it’s time to be awake

What Underlying Causes Can Lead to Difficulty Sleeping in the Elderly?

People in this age group often experience major life changes, whether it’s a newly diagnosed medical condition, death of a friend or loved one, or having to move into a care facility. These are all huge stressors that can cause temporary sleep problems.

Consider their medical history. Some underlying conditions can cause secondary sleep problems including heart and lung problems that affect breathing, heartburn, painful injuries and arthritis, enlarged prostate or overactive bladder, depression, anxiety, and neurological issues like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The medications to treat these conditions can affect sleep, too.

Sleep-related breathing disorders like snoring and sleep apnea increase with age. If your parent claims that they’re sleeping at night but wakes up not feeling rested or experiences periods of sleepiness throughout the day, this is worth consideration. It’s possible they have an undiagnosed problem or that treatments for a known problem aren’t working or aren’t being adhered to.

Some elderly people suffer from restless leg syndrome which causes the skin on their legs to itch and crawl throughout the night. Though this condition isn’t painful, it’s disruptive and can definitely keep them awake.

Another cause of sleep problems could be periodic limb movements of sleep. Generally, this is a rare condition but, in my research, I found that it actually affects up to 45 percent of older adults. This condition causes the lower limbs to move intermittently during sleep and can affect the toes, ankles, knees, and even hips. Not only can these movements wake up the person experiencing them, but they’re also very disruptive to a partner sharing the bed

Finally, your mom or dad may be suffering from insomnia. Whether they’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, people with insomnia can have real difficulties functioning the next day which can be particularly troublesome for elderly people living on their own.

Treating Sleep Problems in the Elderly

The most important thing is to identify the underlying cause. If sleep problems are secondary to something else, they should improve when the primary problem is taken care of.

If there is no treatable medical cause for insomnia, there are some things that you can try with mom or dad to help them get some rest.

Mindfulness and meditation have been found to be effective in helping senior citizens sleep. There are a lot of great courses online and some useful apps. Plus, some senior centers offer classes teaching mindfulness and meditation. If your parent isn’t technologically savvy or prefers to learn in-person, finding a course shouldn’t be a problem.

For serious, on-going problems, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a great choice. It involves learning how to avoid negative thought patterns and focusing on relaxation to promote sleep. I also found out that it’s beneficial for people who are suffering from other mental conditions along with difficulty sleeping.

While sedatives can be effective, they’re generally not recommended for elderly people. Not only are they addicting and difficult to taper off of, but they can also amplify the symptoms of dementia which can be dangerous, particularly when it comes to falls and injuries.

One medication that’s generally safe and effective is melatonin. It’s a hormone that occurs naturally in the body that directly affects the sleep-wake cycle. While researching this article, I found that it’s quite effective in improving the sleep of elderly adults and, best of all, it doesn’t seem to be habit forming or lead to any withdrawal symptoms. Just make sure to use a high-quality supplement as it’s not well regulated in the U.S.

When to See the Doctor

If you’ve tried everything and mom or dad still can’t seem to get enough sleep, it might be time to consult their physician. The doctor will likely do an exam to see if any health problems have developed that are causing secondary sleep issues. A physician should also be able to determine if it’s a side effect of any medications your parent is currently taking. Depending on what it is, they may be able to make an adjustment to the dose.


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