Elderly man sleeping in blue pajamas in bed
Fitness & Lifestyle

The Importance of Sleep

A brief guide to sleep changes in the elderly

Sleeping habits change as we age. If you’re caring for an elderly parent, you may have noticed shifts in your mom or dad’s sleeping habits, sleep disturbances, or that your parent needs more sleep. Read on to learn more about sleep changes in the elderly, and some strategies to help your aging parent get the rest he or she needs. Because it shouldn’t be a nightmare to get a good night’s sleep.

The importance of sleep for the elderly

Everyone benefits from a good night’s sleep. When we sleep well, it’s easier to concentrate and to remember things. Sleep is when our bodies get a chance to repair cell damage, and when the immune system refreshes — helping to keep us healthy and fight disease. 

Older adults who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from depression and problems with attention and memory. They are also more likely to experience nighttime falls. Insufficient sleep has been linked to a variety of health problems in adults, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and breast cancer.

How many hours of sleep does an elderly person need?

Of course, sleep requirements vary from person to person. That said, most healthy adults need between about 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. As we get older, though, we may need to spread that number out over a longer period of time. So, whereas a healthy 45-year-old might sleep from 11 PM to 7 AM straight and wake up refreshed, his 75-year-old father may need to go to bed by 10 PM and wake up at 9 AM, with several periods of wakefulness over the course of those 11 hours. In other words, older adults may need more time to get the same amount of sleep as their younger family members.

Sleep changes in the elderly

Over the course of a lifetime, our sleep needs and cycles shift dramatically. We move from tiny infants who sleep more than we’re awake, to toddlers who need an afternoon nap, through to the teenage years, where we’re wired to stay up — and sleep in — late, much to our parents’ chagrin.

So, it should come as no surprise that sleep patterns continue to shift as we age. You may have noticed, for example, that your aging parent goes to bed and wakes up earlier, doesn’t sleep as soundly, and may need an afternoon nap. They may talk about waking up frequently in the night, or being more tired during the day.

All of these changes are a normal, if occasionally frustrating or unwelcome, part of aging.

What changes should I be concerned about?

Sleeping disorders in seniors are less common than these normal shifts. Sleep disorders can include:

  • Sleep apnea: brief interruptions in breathing during sleep
  • Insomnia: difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping restlessly
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: a disrupted sleep-wake cycle
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS): strong urges to move the legs during or before sleep
  • Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD): the twitching, flexing and jerking movements of the legs and arms during sleep
  • REM behaviour disorder: the vivid acting out dreams during sleep

What causes sleeping problems?

Senior woman lies awake in bed next to her sleeping husband

Sleeping disorders and problems are sometimes linked to medical conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain (for example, from conditions like arthritis), depression, dementia, or cardiovascular disease.

Medications can also play a role. Many older adults take a variety of medications that can interfere with sleep. These can include drugs that treat high blood pressure, glaucoma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), rheumatoid arthritis, depression, reflux, Parkinson’s, and more.

Some sleep problems are lifestyle related. Smoking, alcohol and caffeine can all contribute to sleep disturbances in the elderly (not to mention younger folks). Some habits, like watching TV or staring at a smartphone before bed, can also disrupt sleep.

If you suspect that your aging parent has a sleeping disorder, or you’re worried that an underlying health condition is disrupting your mom or dad’s sleep, talk about it with their healthcare professional. To diagnose a sleep issue, a medical practitioner will talk to your parent about their symptoms, do a physical examination and any tests to check for problems, and may ask your parent to keep a sleep diary for a week or two — you may be able to help keep track of your parent’s patterns. 

The doctor or nurse may also suggest a sleep study, where your parent will spend the night in a sleep lab. There, technicians will monitor things like body movement, breathing patterns, snoring, heart rate and brain activity in order to detect any underlying sleep issues.

Natural sleep remedies for the elderly

White clock on bedside table next to bed

Tempted to reach for sleeping pills for a sleep-deprived parent? Before you do, consider non-medical sleep solutions first. Older adults may already be taking multiple medications, and adding another one to the medicine cabinet may cause drug interactions or new symptoms. While they can be effective in managing short-term insomnia, sleeping pills can actually make it worse in the long term. What’s more, a senior may become dependent on the pills to sleep — and suffer from rebound insomnia or other symptoms like nightmares once the drug is discontinued.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of drug-free ways to improve sleep for seniors. You can help your parent create an effective “sleep hygiene” routine — in other words, incorporating a variety of sleep-promoting habits and behaviours into daily life, while eliminating the culprits that interfere with shut-eye. For example:

  • Stick to a regular bedtime.
  • Exercise! Engaging in regular aerobic exercise, several times per week, can dramatically improve sleep for middle-aged and older adults. Try to finish exercising within four hours of bedtime.
  • Use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to address the anxiety, negative thoughts, worries and other emotional issues that literally keep your parent awake at night.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine, especially before later in the day.
  • Avoid bright lights — including the glow of smartphones, tablets and computer screens — for the hour or two before bedtime.

Create a supportive Circle of Care

If you’re caring for an elderly parent who isn’t sleeping well, chances are you may not be sleeping well either. And if you’re sleep deprived, your own health (physical and emotional) can suffer. You may need to enlist the support of your siblings, family members, respite workers, and other partners in order to make sure that everybody gets the rest they need to function.

The CareEasy app helps you create a Circle of Care around your aging relative: you can use it, for example, to schedule night shifts with mom or dad, keep track of appointments, communicate about medications, and divvy up payments for outside care and services. Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep.

Download the CareEasy app for FREE