Growing old ain’t for wimps. No matter how well we take care of ourselves throughout our lives, things seem to fall apart for some seniors in the so-called golden years.
One hassle we might face as we age? Restless sleep. Not necessarily because we worry about whether our grandkids are going to get their acts together, and certainly not because we’re excited about hitting every single rollercoaster on our Senior Center’s next planned social outing at the theme park. We’re talking about serious physiological and psychological issues that impact our ability to complete all the necessary stages of a good night’s sleep.
“But…we don’t need as much sleep as we age,” you say because you’ve heard it said a million times before. Guess what? It’s a myth. Extra waking hours are not a perk we earn, like a gold watch, when we retire. Those extra hours are a result of insomnia, interrupted sleep, and waking early due to the downsides of growing older.
Common Contributors to Sleep Disorders in Seniors
As many as 40% of seniors suffer from chronic sleep problems, many caused by illnesses that worsen due to the same sleep deprivation they cause.
To break the cycle, we need to better understand the co-occurring issues and poor sleep environments that reduce our ability to rest and recharge our bodies and minds.
Reduced Melatonin Production
As we age, our bodies lose the ability to adequately produce the natural chemicals needed to maintain our circadian rhythms.
Bright daytime lighting or exposure to direct sunlight may help boost natural melatonin production, though elderly people may wish to use melatonin supplements.
Depression and Anxiety
As people age, they experience life and physical changes that can lead to depression and anxiety. Loss of friends, inability to pursue favorite hobbies, reduced independence, and poor health are among many factors that contribute to chronic or acute mood problems.
Anxiety and depression are directly connected to insomnia. Lack of sleep also has the reverse effect, impacting one’s day-to-day feelings of well-being and compounding more serious mood disorders.
Medications and Physical Ailments
Seniors living with physical health issues and their symptoms are among those at the highest risk of experiencing sleep problems. Respiratory problems, joint pain, muscle atrophy, and nerve pain make it difficult for them to sleep comfortably and restfully. Prescription medications can also negatively affect sleep patterns.
Short naps lasting 30-90 minutes can increase alertness, willpower, and productivity among healthy individuals as long as the “napper” doesn’t enter the deepest parts of the sleep cycle. In the latter case, naps negatively affect a full night’s rest.
Nodding off, regardless of the napper’s age, can be an indication of underlying health issues, whether or not those issues directly affect nighttime sleep patterns.
When we catch some shuteye sitting up in a chair, we often wake up stiff and sore, making it difficult to sleep comfortably at bedtime.
Encouraging Restful Sleep
Achieving a full night’s rest is a priority as we age. Sleep deprivation negatively affects motor skills and cognition, increasing the risk of injuries due to falls. It prevents us from engaging socially and participating in activities that keep us intellectually and physically active.
The following tips put us and our older loved ones on the path to prolonged health and independence.
Improve Patient/Doctor Communication
If your physician asks whether or not you’re sleeping well, don’t assume you are simply because you catch a total of 7 hours of sleep by adding up five nap sessions during the day and two hours of tossing and turning at night.
Always be proactive and specific when describing symptoms and sleep issues with your doctor so she can determine the root of your issues. Make sure your primary physician, as well as all of your specialists and your pharmacist, are aware of each medication and over-the-counter supplement you take, and what time of day you take them. Don’t rely on the accuracy of networked medical records to keep everyone informed.
Low-impact exercises like Tai Chi and yoga keep our whole bodies and our minds healthy. They also help improve balance, coordination and muscle strength. When we’re less likely to fall, we’re more confident as we get around and stay active. That means less time sitting (and napping) in our favorite
Limber muscles also help support our skeletal structure, reducing joint pain during the day and while we sleep.
Here’s an oft-repeated line that isn’t a myth: Exercise in and of itself normalizes sleep cycles.
Use Lighting to Your Advantage
Bright, sunny, well-lit rooms tell your body and your mind that it’s time to be awake and alert. An hour or so before bedtime, reduce ambient lighting to signal your body that it should begin winding down.
Try putting lamps on timers. More tech-savvy seniors might do well with home-automation systems or even remote-controlled dimmers.
Be sure you have enough lighting to see as you move about, as low visibility is another falling hazard.
Light quality affects our mental well-being, and natural or artificial sunlight may even reduce the risk of cognitive disorders, including dementia. Consider installing daylight-balanced bulbs, or medically-approved light therapy devices.
Invest in a Quality Sleep Environment
Mattresses and pillows should provide appropriate support and comfort for aging bodies. High-quality orthopedic pillows customized to specific body shapes support necks and shoulders, facilitating healthy respiration while reducing stiffness.
Orthopedic mattresses take the weight off pressure points in our limbs, hips, and shoulders, and modern textiles allow us to use lighter blankets and comforters without sacrificing warmth.
If you’ve always been a power-napper, or you enjoy keeping up to speed with your favorite teams, a reading pillow will improve your posture when you’re relaxing in your favorite chair.
New environments can throw a wrench into our sleep patterns, and orthopedic travel pillows provide sleep continuity when we’re away from home.
Don’t Keep Your Sleep Success a Secret
Do you have friends or loved ones who complain about not getting enough sleep? Do you have a parent who insists everything’s fine, but you suspect they’re feeling fatigued? If you’ve found this advice successful, share your experiences with them. Seniors, much like teenagers (or most people, for that matter) don’t like to be told what to do, but custom pillows, daylight lamps, and comfortable bedding make wonderful gifts they won’t turn down.
Should you opt to buy your parents a home automation system, though, be prepared to make plenty of follow-up visits; they’re often easier to use than an old-school VCR clock is to adjust, but we all know that older generations will take advantage of any ruse to get their kids to visit!