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Insomnia is a common problem among the elderly. Aged individuals may be predisposed to experience sleep problems because of reduced mobility, social limitations, physical inactivity, or physical or mental illnesses. Although the elderly tend to sleep fewer hours, it should not be assumed that they need less sleep.
Sleeping problems include difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, waking up early and daytime sleepiness. These issues can be chronic (occurring at least three times a week and lasting for at least a month) or acute (lasting for a night to a few weeks). If unchecked, ongoing sleeplessness exacts a heavy toll on a person and can lead to fatigue, anxiety, irritability, cognitive problems, mobility difficulties and an increased incidence of falls or injury. Regular, restful slumber is critical for health and well-being.
There are a variety of possible causes for sleep issues, including stress, depression or anxiety; habits (like caffeine consumption) that can hamper sleep; underlying medical conditions (such as sleep apnea or Restless Leg Syndrome); and the side effects of certain medications.
Tips for Promoting Restful Sleep
According to our Chief Medical Officer Mary Tuuk, M.D., "While sleep-enhancing drugs (either over-the-counter or prescription medications) may provide temporary relief from the symptoms of insomnia, they should not be used chronically, but only on a short-term basis (that is, for no more than two weeks) because of possible side effects and addictive potential."
If you or a loved one is having trouble with insomnia, Dr. Tuuk suggests exploring some of the following non-drug strategies to enhance restful sleep:
- Only go to bed when sleepy.
- Establish a regular schedule for going to bed and getting up. Sleep roughly the same number of hours each night, including during weekends and vacations.
- Avoid daytime naps or, at least, confine them to no more than 30 minutes a day.
- Steer clear of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and chocolate.
- Avoid large meals close to bedtime.
- Engage in regular, moderately intense exercise, but not within three hours of sleeping.
- Curtail fluid intake within four hours of sleeping to decrease the need to get up to urinate during the night.
- Reserve the bedroom for sleep and sexual activity only-not for watching television, engaging in hobbies or working on the computer, for example.
- Keep the bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
- Avoid stimulating activities just before bed. Focus instead on relaxing pastimes, such as reading or listening to soothing music.
- When falling asleep, concentrate on thinking positive thoughts rather than dwelling on problems, concerns or fears.
- If unable to fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, get up, and return to bed when sleepy.
What Caregivers Like You Can Do to Help
If you're a caregiver whose loved one is struggling with sleep, talk with his or her physician about it. If you can, bring along a detailed, written description of your loved one's experience and symptoms. You might want to record a "sleep log" for a week or two, which tracks his or her daytime naps, eating and exercise routines, hours of sleep, incidents of waking up and duration of nighttime wakefulness.
Check all medications to make sure sleeplessness is not among the side effects. If it is, consult with the doctor about the possibility of changing medications.
If anxiety or repetitive, negative thoughts are a particular problem, suggest that your loved one write down a list of concerns or worries before bed and leave the list on a desk or dresser to review the following morning.
As anyone who has experienced it knows all too well, living with insomnia can be frustrating, depressing and energy-sapping. Acknowledge your loved one's feelings and be gentle when suggesting changes in behavior or routine that might help him or her to experience restful and restorative sleep as the rule-not the exception.