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Elderly Sleep Disorders: From Not Sleeping At Night To Sleeping All Day

After my father suffered a debilitating stroke, my mother had to made a lot of changes in her routine to accommodate his needs. However, there were a few things she was not willing to sacrifice. In one letter she wrote to me she said:

“The one place where I won’t give in to Quentin is when I want to sit up and read at night. He never wanted me to do that when he was well. Now he says that the light being on in the living room and the noise of the turning pages keeps him awake. I told him last night to not worry if he can’t sleep while I’m reading, because he never has any trouble sleeping in the daytime when I’m working. The TV can be on. The dishwasher can be running. The sweeper can be going and the phone can be ringing and he sleeps like he’s dead. I need some time to myself, and if he can’t sleep while I’m reading, he will just have to stay awake!”

I admired Mom for sticking to her guns on this issue, but she often chose quiet time over sleep time, and it took a terrible toll on her health. If she were alive today, there are a lot of things I would encourage her to do in order to get some rest, starting with the recommendation that she go back to bed and sleep during the daytime when Dad slept so soundly.

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I would also encourage her to be fanatical about maintaining their exercise routines. My parents lived on a farm, so they had to exert quite a bit of effort to get to town to go to their water-walking class at the YMCA and their exercise class at the hospital. If the weather was bad, or if they weren’t feeling very energetic, they had a tendency to stay home. They missed classes quite often because Mom suffered with restless leg syndrome (which, when it comes to the elderly, is actually among the most common sleep disorders), and Dad had trouble breathing as a result of his stroke. He also had incontinence issues due to his prostate cancer, so it was highly unusual for them to go to bed and sleep through the night.

I do know they both experienced increased energy during the day and better rest at night when they exercised. Being practical and pragmatic, my mom once wrote and complained that the exercise instructor at the hospital spent too much time socializing and talking with everyone about their weekend plans, their grandkids, etc. And then, one day after they’d been exercising on a regular basis for several weeks, my dad was able to walk into the class without his walker or cane. Everyone cheered and celebrated his progress. That’s when Mom recognized that the socialization and emotional support were almost as beneficial as the exercise itself. (The only time Dad was willing to do his exercises at home was when the pretty, redheaded physical therapist came by.)

Elderly Sleep Disorders

Sleep deprivation can have a devastating impact on our mental and physical well-being. It’s actually one of the most effective forms of torture, and, for many seniors, it’s one of the most serious sleep problems. When we don’t get adequate sleep it affects our ability to think and reason. It can lead to poor decision making, erratic behavior and increased falls as well as accidents in the home, at work and on the road. It can also contribute to depression, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

We all function better when we get adequate sleep. It restores our bodies and rejuvenates our brains. However, as we age, there are a lot of issues that work against us when it comes to getting a full night of uninterrupted rest.

Issues that can affect sleep in the elderly include:

  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Medications
  • Chronic health issues
  • Low levels of hormones
  • Frequent urination

Poor nighttime habits can also contribute to sleeplessness. Do you remember how important it was to follow a nighttime ritual when you were putting little ones to bed? You might find it is just as important when you are caring for a loved one who can no longer care for him/herself.

Some suggestions that might help an elderly loved one with sleep disorders to rest easier include:

  • Limit consumption of caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
  • Reduce your intake of liquids during the late afternoon and evening hours
  • Do stretching and/or breathing exercises or practice quiet meditation before you turn off the lights
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, comfortable, cool and conducive to sleep
  • Turn off your television at least one hour before you go to bed. Nod off with calm, soothing music instead of the glaring light and blaring noise of a TV
  • Avoid large, spicy meals late in the evening. Try to have dinner at least three hours before you turn in. If you’re hungry at bedtime, have a light snack
  • Cut down on screen time. Avoid your computer screen and backlit reading devices for at least an hour before bedtime
  • Put your worries on paper. Getting swirling upsetting thoughts, fears and what-if’s out of your brain and down on paper can help you release them and prevent 3:00 a.m. wake-up worry calls

Many elderly people will experience a restless night occasionally. However, if it’s become a pattern, and you think you might be dealing with chronic insomnia, see a doctor as soon as possible to see if there is a medical problem and a possible solution.

And finally, if you aren’t sleeping at night because your care receiver can’t sleep, figure out a way to get some respite. Toward the end of my dad’s life, my mother became so mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted that she was having difficulty completing even the most basic tasks.

Had she arranged to have someone come in occasionally and sit with Dad downstairs while she went to an upstairs bedroom to sleep, he wouldn’t have liked it. But who knows, it might have made him a little more considerate and careful about waking her up so frequently.

A few months before Dad died, he suffered a terrible fall that put him in a nursing home. Mom had reached her limit, and when she heard about a silent retreat at a convent in a nearby town, she signed up to go. She didn’t have to cook, clean, do laundry, change Dad’s wet sheets in the middle of the night, deal with his Depends or tend to any of his other needs. For two glorious days she ate. She read. She prayed. And most importantly, she slept. She got two nights of deep, peaceful, uninterrupted sleep, and I am absolutely convinced it saved her life.

It’s important to recognize that getting enough sleep may play a more critical role than even food and water in your ability to think and function. You need to make getting enough sleep a priority, especially if you are caring for a loved one at home.

Claudia Robs a Bank (a whacky plan to get a little rest)

A few months ago, I posted the video “Claudia Robs a Bank” with another article. I wanted to share it again, just in case you missed it the first time. I met Claudia when I spoke at a conference in Wisconsin for people who were caring for loved ones with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease. In the morning I had talked about how the 3 F’s of Freaking Out: Fatigue, Fear and Frustration contribute to caregiver anger. At lunch Claudia, a dear, sweet elderly woman told me about her whacky plan to get a little rest.

Everyone at the table roared with laughter when she shared her idea to get some respite. Claudia’s positive attitude and terrific sense of humor went a long way toward helping her survive the stress of caring for her husband, but at a deeper level it revealed how desperate some caregivers become.

There is no substitute for sleep. The only cure for sleep deprivation is sleep. The video is less than two minutes in length, and if you watch it I’m sure you’ll get a chuckle out of Claudia’s plan. However, if it makes sense to you, if you think it might actually be a plan worth considering, then instead, please, please, please find a way to get some rest.

Resource: Claudia Robs a Bank Video

Elaine K. Sanchez is an author, speaker and co-founder of, a video-based caregiver support program that family members and professionals cope with the emotional stress of caregiving. She also writes the daily blog Caregiver Help Word of the Day. You can contact her at

For more information check out our Senior Sleep Resources