Safe Sleeping Guide for Seniors

Our sleep needs change as we age, and a many seniors struggle with sleep problems. Learn how the elderly can sleep better.

How come seniors always wake up so early even though they do not have to go to work? Since we were kids, we were forced to wake up early for some mandatory daily commitments, go to kindergarten, go to school, university, work, etc. Somehow we could not wait for the weekend to get a chance to sleep a few extra hours and wake up a bit later than usually. So, when people finally reach that stage of their life when they are no longer obligated to wake up early, why do they still do that? Is it a healthy habit, a change in lifestyle or something else?

Seniors still need a proper seven to nine hours of sleep, but their life stage is usually the main trigger for several different causes of sleep disruption. Their fragile sleep pattern is generally treated with medications which are a controversial theme nowadays since there is a lot of pros and cons. The important thing is that sleeping pills are luckily not the only possible solution; there is a specter of things that seniors can do to enhance their sleep. Different lifestyle changes, healthy routines or sleeping products may be very beneficial for senior’s sleep without potential side effects.

Their sleep routine also changes with their age because seniors go to bed early, as they get tired easily during the day, even from doing some simple chores around the house. But, despite going to bed tired, seniors usually wake up more often during the night, their sleep is not so deep, and they need extra time to fall asleep. They also often nap during the day, probably because they were not able to rest properly at night. Sleep deprivation leads to moodiness, depression, problems with memory and attention, etc.

Although it is widely accepted, sleep quality issues are not always tightly connected with age, a lot of elderly people experience them, but that is not the rule. When it comes to prevention, it is hard to tell what one can do to prepare his body and mind to welcome that life stage because it is all very individual.

Why Do Seniors Have Difficulty Sleeping?

As we age, the neurons in charge of sleep pattern start to die off, and because of that, the majority of the elderly has problems with falling or staying asleep. Besides that, many different conditions and diseases are attached to sleep problems, for example, menopause, arthritis, and diabetes. Prescribed medications can also develop sleep disruption problems as a side effect. Older people are less active, they exercise less and get tired quickly because their health condition changes, but it is essential to continue with light exercises and maintain those healthy habits. People who are more physically active usually have a good sleep because their body is tired, so it is recommended for seniors to stay active.

Retirement is one of those things that we dream about while we are younger and just starting to work, but in reality, our mind and body get so used to that work routine that is mostly maintained for years and years, and once it stops it represents a shock. Seniors all of a sudden have no obligations, no 9-to-5 job, their day is suddenly free of any activities and plans, and that can cause anxiety, stress, emotional disbalance which will have an impact on their sleep.

When people go to retirement or get older, they are in that stage of life in which they are confronted with death cases of their close friends, family members or beloved spouse. Death is always a strong emotional event, but seniors are especially sensitive, and loneliness that comes as an outcome is also linked to poor sleep.

Due to their age, seniors are more liable to diseases and different conditions which their body cannot handle very well. Illnesses are also a substantial financial and emotional burden, a stress cause that also can lead to depression. Seniors expect that they are experienced enough and should be able to do everything by themselves, so sometimes it can be hard for them to accept the fact that they need help. Sometimes they would rather struggle on their own than ask for help, and this emotional drain impacts their sleep as well.

Sleep deprivation cannot only aggravate their fragile emotional condition, but it can create more problems during the day. Sleep deprivation affects their sense of balance and reaction time, which is one of the reasons why seniors are more liable to accidental falls.

So as we have seen, a lot of problems can pile up once we enter that phase of our lives, it almost seems like everything is slowly starting to shut down and cause multiple problems which prevent us from enjoying our age fully.

Most Common Sleep Problems That Affect Seniors

An average adult usually achieves 4 to 5 cycles from light to REM sleep phase during the night but spends much more time in REM. On the other side, seniors have problems with reaching that REM sleep; they often wake up during the night or have a feeling that they did not rest properly in the morning.

Lack of sleep during the night causes them to nap a few times during the day, which will make it even harder for them to fall asleep at night, so it is like an enchanted circle.

We are going to list out a few most common disorders that can have a significant impact on seniors sleep.

  • Insomnia – the leading cause of sleep problems among the elderly population, and it refers to difficulties falling or staying asleep. Symptoms of insomnia are a short period of sleep or fragmented sleep, longer sleep latency, waking up earlier but still feeling tired. Seniors can try to solve their insomnia by changing their habits, or trying cognitive-behavioral therapies and some relaxation techniques. CBTI is proven to be one of the most successful and natural ways to treat and cure insomnia.
  • Sleep apnea – sleepers with this disorder will experience occasional breathing lapses during the night. Sleep apnea is common among adults, but seniors are more prone to it because the muscles which control the breathing are getting weaker as we age, so it becomes harder for the airways to stay always open. Usually, these people will remain asleep, but their brain will wake up over and over again during the night, trying to fulfill that REM sleep cycle. They will wake up feeling tired and feel sleepy during the day because their brain was constantly restarting the sleep cycle. This condition can also be followed by snoring. Sleep apnea is successfully treated with CPAP (continuous positive airways pressures) therapy.
  • Movement disorders – Restless leg syndrome is the most common moving disorder which contributes to insomnia, sleepers experience tingling, numbing or burning sensations that can be very severe and wake them up. Lack of iron in the senior’s body is connected to this syndrome, so taking some iron supplements can help as well as some behavioral therapies. Beside RLS, seniors can experience PLMD (a periodic limb movement disorder) or RBD (sleep behavior disorder).

Safety Risks for Seniors

Sleep deprived people are more prone to accidents, but when it comes to elderly people who wake up often during the night, have dementia or some physical difficulties due to their age, seniors can be at risk even in their own bedroom. When a senior falls down, that can cause some more problems on the long run, their bones are fragile and prone to breaking, they recover slower than the average adult person, so for them, even a small fall can have fatal consequences. The bedroom should be a safe sleep environment, but since for the elders, the most random things can turn into a risk factor, we are going to point out on which things you should pay attention.

  • Rugs – they may be pretty and functional, but if they do not cover the entire floor from one wall to another, there is a real risk of tripping over it. Smaller rugs get bunched up easily, and those small bumps are just waiting for clumsy seniors who cannot see this obstacle on their way during the night.
  • Clutter – anything that is left on the floor should be removed before the lights go out. You will forget that it is there, but once you get remembered, it is going to be painful.
  • Power cords – chargers and different cables should be well hidden because when they are laying across the floor it is easy to trip over them.
  • Dimmed lighting – this is another risk factor because it is often not enough for seniors who have vision problems and wear glasses. They will overlook some things that are on their way, hit the furniture, miss the doorway, and end up in pain. Even the smallest injury can be harmful to seniors.
  • Pets – our small furry friends can be a great company and help for seniors, but they should sleep in their own space or cage. The movements of an animal are unpredictable, and if they randomly get on the senior’s way, both of them may get hurt. Once a senior falls, it can be impossible to get up without any help.

Sleeping Tips for Seniors

After we have listed some of the most common danger factors that are in our room, as our first tip or suggestion we want to recommend simplifying the space where you sleep in. Remove everything that is unnecessary, or store it in the drawers, basement, wherever, just make sure to reduce the risk of accidents especially if you are living alone and have nobody to help you immediately. Try keeping up with a specific sleep schedule and go to bed at the exact same time, even on weekends, that should train your mind and body to sleep longer during the night.

Seniors should stress less, but it is easier said than done. Stress can affect seniors’ mood and overall health, and that’s why they should try to control their emotions better. Yoga, meditation, and psychotherapy can help with that. You can also write your worries and emotions in some form of worry journal every night before bed as it will release these worries from your mind and help you sleep better.

Seniors usually have to avoid some types of food due to their health problems, but food also impacts sleep. Sleep deprived seniors should avoid foods that contain a lot of sugar or fat. Also, drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks will disrupt their sleep. In the end, it all comes down to healthy eating and drinking habits. Physical activity is also highly recommended, and although it will exhaust the body, seniors should avoid naps during the day to get a better night sleep.

A warm shower before the bed will relax the muscles and the body, but it is crucial to carefully get in and out of the tub and watch out for slippery surfaces.

As sleeping pills are a somewhat controversial topic, we are not going to talk about them this time. Instead, we suggest trying out mattresses that are suitable for seniors, wearing sleep masks or listening to white noise to lullaby yourself to sleep tight till the morning.


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