When we consider the sleeping patterns of older adults, we may not initially see a huge problem – at least not on the surface. After all, now that they’re retired, they can sleep as late as they like, take frequent naps, and go to bed whenever they wish. However, sleep problems are a real issue with seniors, with very real consequences.
How much sleep is enough?
Since older adults tend to say they’re tired or take frequent naps, you may be under the impression that they need more sleep. However, while it’s true that sleep patterns change as we grow older, most older adults actually need less sleep than younger people. For older adults, seven to eight hours of sleep a night is sufficient. But, unlike a younger person, older adults may not get their rest all at once (i.e., at night in one lump sum), but throughout the day. In addition to this, older adults tend to sleep less deeply than younger people.
Surprisingly, older adults frequently don’t enjoy the quality of sleep we think they do. One theory about why this is the case is that they may produce less melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that, among other things, helps regulate the sleep cycle. Regardless, a lack of quality sleep is a serious problem for people of any age, but much more so for older adults.
Lack of sleep comes with consequences
Everyone needs and deserves quality sleep, but it’s especially important for older adults to get enough rest. Besides the general feeling of being tired during the day (which is unpleasant in itself), lack of sleep can have serious health consequences for this age group. For starters, it can weaken their immune systems, leaving them less able to fight both acute and chronic illnesses. They may heal more slowly as well, leaving them vulnerable if they suffer injuries. Also, a lack of adequate sleep can be a factor in cognitive issues such as impaired memory or emotional difficulties like depression.
Improving sleep quality
The good news is that many things can be done to improve an older adult’s sleep problems. If you suffer from poor-quality sleep, here are a few tips:
- See a doctor. If you have any underlying medical conditions that interfere with sleep (such as depression, anxiety or even bladder issues that force you to get up during the night), get them treated right away so you can get back to sleeping well every night.
- Respect your circadian rhythms. As we grow older, our circadian rhythms (which keep our bodies functioning in accordance with a day-to-night schedule) tend to change. Older adults may be sleepier earlier in the evening and rise earlier in the day as well. Don’t try to force your body to follow the same sleep schedule you kept when you were younger. At night, sleep when you’re tired and get up when you’re ready.
- Adjust your lifestyle. Things that might not have affected your sleep when you were younger can have a huge influence on your sleep cycle later in life. For instance, caffeine may have a stronger impact on you now, so consider minimizing its use before bed or even in the early afternoon. Many older adults reduce the amount of exercise they get, but exercise can actually help you sleep (as long as you don’t do it too late in the evening).
- Rock a restful routine. If you’ve never had a “sleep routine” before, there’s no time like the present to start! Begin by going to sleep at a set time each night and waking at the same time each morning. Try to avoid naps unless you absolutely need one. Reserve the bedroom for relaxing activities that you can do before you turn in, such as reading.
Senior sleep is a necessity – not a luxury!
As adults, we tend to think of adequate sleep as a luxury rather than as a necessity. However, nothing could be further from the truth, especially for older adults. Additionally, fatigue and sleeping poorly are not an inevitable result of aging – they may be symptoms of underlying, treatable conditions. Talk to your or your loved one’s physician about how to get healthier sleep, and soon you’ll both be resting easy!
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.