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Sleep in the Elderly: What is Normal?

If you are a caregiver for a senior, or even just have elderly people in your life, you may wonder about their sleeping habits. It sometimes seems that the elderly don’t need as much sleep as the average person. You may feel like the elderly in your life are sleeping a lot, or sleeping too much during the day. Unfortunately when it comes to sleep in the elderly, what is normal may not necessarily be what is healthy. Excessive sleep or daytime sleeping in the elderly are all related to sleep disorders and can be helped.

How Many Hours of Sleep Does an Elderly Person Need?

A pervading myth related to sleep claims that elderly adults need less sleep than the average adult. It’s not quite clear how this myth began. Perhaps because elderly adults tend to nap in the afternoons and sleep less during the night. Perhaps because the elderly tend to wake up earlier in the morning, it appears they do not need to sleep as much. Whatever the reason, it remains a myth. From the mid-’20s onward, doctors recommend an adult sleep seven to nine hours each night. This does become more challenging as we age. A person’s circadian rhythms change as they age, and other factors can also prevent sleep for the elderly.

Excessive Sleep in Elderly Adults

There has probably been a time when it seems like an elderly person in your life was sleeping all the time. They may fall asleep in the recliner or seem as they are sleeping all day. This excessive sleep, particularly at times when it is not technically normal to be sleeping, is actually a symptom of sleep deprivation in the elderly.

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Lack of Sleep in Elderly Adults

It seems there are many elderly people who can’t sleep at night. It is certainly not just the elderly who struggle with sleep, but sleep disorders do seem more prevalent in the senior population. Two of the most common elderly sleep disorders are sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.

Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing multiple times throughout the night. The pauses in breathing can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. A person suffering from sleep apnea will wake up feeling tired even though they slept for the recommended seven to nine hours. A person’s partner may suspect sleep apnea before the sufferer, since a person who has sleep apnea will often gasp for air or snort during the night, and can also snore heavily. A sleep study is needed to diagnose sleep apnea, so you should consult with a doctor if you believe an elderly loved one may be suffering from it. Often breathing devices like CPAP machines are prescribed for those who suffer from sleep apnea to help them breathe during the night.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) often causes unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them. Symptoms usually occur around late afternoon or evening, and they are often most severe at night when sitting or lying in bed. RLS often goes undiagnosed because the person suffering from it just feels uncomfortable and does not realize there is a specific issue. This is an important reminder to always discuss difficulty sleeping with your doctor or medical professional who can help determine the cause of your lack of sleep and help you find solutions. There are some changes in diet and exercise that can help if you think you or a loved one may be suffering from RLS, and you can read about them here.

Other Elderly Sleep Disorders

If you have an elderly parent who sleeps during the daytime when they should be awake, they may be suffering from insomnia. Insomnia essentially means you can’t sleep, or you aren’t getting enough restful sleep during the night. Insomnia can impact anyone at any age, but changes in circadian rhythms and hormone production due to aging can make insomnia more difficult to overcome for the elderly.

There are many things that can cause insomnia. Some potential causes include:

  • Pain or medical conditions
  • Menopause
  • Medication
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Lack of exercise

Fortunately, practicing good sleep hygiene can help solve many of the issues that may cause insomnia and help your elderly loved ones get better sleep.

Good Sleep Hygiene for Elderly Adults

If you are wondering how to get an elderly person to sleep at night, here are some helpful tips:

  • Make sure the bedroom is quiet, dark and cool. If the senior’s partner snores invest in earplugs or a white noise machine so it will not be bothersome. A sleep mask or blackout curtains may also be useful to make sure no light sneaks into the room.
  • Maintain a routine. The senior person should go to bed and wake up the same time every day, even on weekends. This will train the body and mind to be ready for sleep and stay asleep.
  • Develop a bedtime ritual. Do something relaxing before bed each night. Take a bath, listen to music, read a book, or use a relaxing meditation. Keep the TV off as the light and sounds can actually keep you awake rather than soothe you to sleep.
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed. Rather than toss and turn, get up and do something, even if it is short or easy, like reading a few more pages of your book. Tossing and turning in bed teaches your brain it is OK to do something other than sleep in bed.
  • Stay active during the day. Try to exercise in the morning or early afternoon. Exercise and other activity close to bedtime will keep you awake.
  • Consult a doctor if nothing else is helping. There may be an underlying medical condition keeping you awake. Your restlessness could also be a side-effect of a medication you are taking. And there are medications to help you sleep as a last resort if necessary.

Sleep is important to any person’s overall health and is especially important for the elderly. While there may be many reasons it becomes more difficult to sleep as we age, there are also many things we can do to improve our sleep and stay healthy.