Old And Tired

old age home

old age home (Photo credit: jaded one)

Dear Dr Mom, Many times life includes taking care of and being kind to an elderly person, family member or not (old age homes can be lonely places). For the elderly getting a good nights sleep can impact the quality of life during the day. It may be difficult to quieten the loud and lousy thoughts that crowd in on the mind of older folk who might have all the answers but have forgotten the questions.

Sleeping problems in the elderly are more than likely to manifest in a particular pattern, depending on the health of the person, and the prescription drugs they may be taking for their health problems.The quality of their sleep may change considerably, either because of less demands on their energy as a result of retirement, or through illness.

Illness disrupts sleep patters in the elderly, and may result in increased awakenings due to physical discomfort. Urinary urgency, cramps, angina, chronic obstructive airways disease,and left ventricular heart failure may be some of the many illnesses which cause sleep problems in the elderly.

An elderly person may become very anxious about a change in their sleep pattern, however, it will be necessary to thoroughly investigate the problem in order to find out if this perceived sleeping problem causes dysfunction in their waking activities. If the elderly person has a care-giver, or lives with family then the problem may be easier to assess, for what appears to be a problem may only be a normal change in sleep pattern for the age.

The most frequently occurring sleep problem in the elderly  appears to be trouble falling asleep (sleep latency), the person may spend some hours in bed before they can fall asleep. This may be seen by the elderly person to be a problem, and they may turn to sleeping pills. Sleep latency is more common in women, and this appears to apply to all age groups, not just to the elderly.

Maybe less daytime activity, combined with daytime naps might be contributing to the fact that they cannot fall asleep. The pressure of a normal working day has been taken away, so the energy output is considerably less. While this may be offered as a possible reason for not being able to fall asleep, many others factors may be involved.

Adding to the confusion about sleep latency, the difficulty may be exaggerated because the person who experiences it may be convinced that unless they have 8 hours of quality sleep, they will become ill. Sometimes it is difficult to convince an elderly person that they no longer require 8 hours of unbroken sleep, but that it may be better to have a shorter night’s sleep with added day time naps.

How about the old remedy of a glass of milk before bed?
According to Jean Carper, The Food Pharmacy, milk for insomniacs? Never!
Milk, particularly low fat milk wakes you up. ” Milk delivers tyrosine to the brain, which in turn triggers production of dopamine and norepinephrine, stimulating you to think more quickly, and accurately” (Good for brain function). There are some indications that nodding off after a glass of milk might indicate a milk allergy.

So how can sleep problems in the elderly be resolved?

  • Feeling loved and included
  • A warm comfortable quiet environment,
  • regular exercise,
  • good diet,
  • no heavy meals at night,
  • no eating late at night,
  • relaxation therapies,
  • aromatherapy,
  • herbs like Camomile or Valerian may be taken as a tea, provided that your doctor has been consulted.

Sleep problems in the elderly should be thoroughly investigated before any medications are prescribed. Unfortunately this is not always the procedure that is adopted, for often a script is written for what has been described as insomnia by the elderly person, however, it is most likely not the case, but rather it’s a normal progression of a resetting of the circadian rhythms (biorythms, body clock) which requires education, not medication.

Provided that there is no evidence of disease of the central nervous system, such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic brain damage (where daily doses of coconut oil might just help), and chronic pain, then sleep problems in the elderly are far better managed conservatively.


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