Shakespeare called sleep “chief nourisher in life’s feast.” We’re talking senior sleep here, and many of us do not get enough of it, especially as we age and find our sleep patterns changing.
Why is sleep so important for seniors?
There are many health benefits of a good night’s sleep
It’s not just so you will feel more energized throughout the day (although that’s a plus). There are many benefits that arise when you prioritize sleep, because while you’re asleep, your body is hard at work healing itself and optimizing different processes.
Get a good night’s sleep to:
- Reduce stress: the body may respond to inadequate sleep by producing an elevated level of stress hormones.
- Improve memory: While our body rests, our brain organizes and stores memories.
- Lower blood pressure: Sleep is relaxing, which helps to reduce blood pressure.
- Fight disease and infections: During sleep, the body produces extra protein molecules to aid in the fight against infection.
- Enhance mood: Being tired can make people become easily agitated. Sleep helps us stay calm and relaxed.
- Improve heart health: A regular sleep pattern can help to lower the levels of stress and inflammation to your cardiovascular system, which can reduce your chances of a stroke or heart condition.
- Reduce risk of depression: Sleep impacts many chemicals in your body, including serotonin. People with serotonin deficiencies are more likely to suffer from depression.
Senior sleep needs do not vary much from those of younger adults
Individuals vary, of course, and each person requires a different amount of sleep hours. Our circadian rhythms are as individual as our DNA, and factors such as fewer daylight hours in winter can affect the sleep-wake cycle. (And yes, that means that Canadians who stay put in winter sleep more than residents of sunny Florida—but it’s a long way to travel to gain an average of only thirteen minutes more.)
Researchers generally agree that a minimum of six hours and a maximum of nine is healthy, and for adults 65 and older, seven to eight hours is about right.
The surprise is that extending sleep those extra hours only provides marginal benefits. In fact, too much sleep can increase health risks. The test is daytime drowsiness—a sure sign that, however long you’re sleeping, it’s not enough.
How can seniors improve their sleep quality?
Understand your sleep patterns and establish a routine
We all tend to be either early birds or night owls. Blame it on your genes. A single change in genetic code can result in an hour’s difference in waking time. How did this evolve? In millennia past, the theory goes, tribal protectors had to stay vigilant against the dangers night could bring. The brains of the descendants of these “night watchmen” evolved to have less white matter and higher cortisol levels, better equipping them to respond to immediate threats but also predisposing them to later wake and sleep cycles. So, early birds: no more grousing. It’s thanks to the night owls that your ancestors’ genetic lines survived.
Whatever you’re naturally inclined to rise early or late, maintain a regular sleep schedule. To make it easier to fall asleep at your regular bedtime, limit late afternoon and evening naps.
Reduce screen time and stimuli before bedtime
Televisions and other screens emit short wavelength blue light. This light is not dangerous in itself but it could be signaling your brain to stay alert by suppressing sleep-inducing melatonin. It is theorized that this effect could persist even after you have fallen asleep by delaying REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycles which begin about 90 minutes after you first fall asleep. During these deep sleep stages, your body is busy repairing and rebuilding.
In principle, self-imposed screen curfews are a good idea. When you spend the last waking hours of the day reading printed material, your brain will “get the idea” that it can motor down.
Try a weighted blanket for more restful sleep
Weighted blankets are like all-night hugs. Initial research finds that they reduce anxiety and promote restful sleep. Chronic insomniacs were found to fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more rested by morning using a weighted blanket. Just as a deep tissue massage both stimulates and soothes, so too does the cocooning effect of a weighted blanket encourage mood-lifting serotonin levels. The chemistry lab within our pineal gland, responding to darkness, converts that serotonin to melatonin inducing sleep.
Understand common medical conditions that may impact sleep
Often for seniors, medications and medical conditions cause poor sleep. If you are concerned that medications may be negatively impacting sleep, consult a doctor.
Common medical conditions that may impact a senior’s sleep include sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. For our residents living with Alzheimer’s disease, our team at The Gardens Memory Care is trained to address common sleep challenges and contributing medical factors.
At The Gardens, days include a structured rest period after lunch. If a memory care resident wakes in the middle of the night, they are redirected to encourage them to go back to sleep. Sometimes, a resident who gets chilly at night might have a harder time staying asleep; to help in these cases, The Gardens provides extra blankets or weighted blankets at night. Another approach utilized at The Gardens—aromatherapy to promote restful sleep.
For more information about conditions that may affect sleep as your age, we recommend this article from the National Sleep Foundation.
Linden House’s Senior Sleep Squad
When a Linden House resident has trouble falling (or staying) asleep, we encourage a variety of approaches. Consulting with a resident’s physician is the first step if medications or underlying conditions disturb sleep patterns. Often, just talking about the problem can help. We may suggest more regular bedtime and waking routines, quiet activities at bedtime, and avoiding bright lights.
Sometimes, restful sleep can be restored with regular exercise (but not just before bedtime). Our full-time Activities Director ensures that the Linden House program calendar is always full of engaging activities.
We also understand that diet plays a role in senior sleep. We encourage residents to avoid snacks, caffeine, and alcohol in the late hours. If possible, restrict fluids to reduce disruptive midnight bathroom breaks. Whatever your dietary needs, our chef-prepared menu offers delicious, nourishing meals.
Most of all, we reassure residents that changes they are experiencing in sleep patterns are normal and that we are here to help.
For more senior healthy living tips, read more Linden House health and wellness blogs.