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Why is it harder to sleep when you get older?

Many people find that their sleep patterns or quality of sleep is affected as they get older. Read our tips for getting a more restful night's sleep.

May 19, 2022

Elderly lady sleeping

Many people find that their sleep patterns or sleep quality are affected as they get older. If you have an elderly loved one who isn’t sleeping well, it can be a real concern because good sleep is vital to physical and mental health.

Insomnia is particularly common in elderly people, and if it affects sleep for months or even years, it can have a significant impact on quality of life.

This article looks at a few reasons why sleep can get more difficult as we age, why it matters, and things to look out for if you are worried that an elderly loved one is having sleep problems. We also offer some beneficial tips to help them get better rest and other things you can do to help bring greater peace of mind.

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Reasons why older people can struggle to sleep well

There are several different reasons why older people can begin to struggle with their sleep, even if they have never had issues with sleeping in the past.

Many older adults spend more time in bed than they did when they were younger, but the quantity and quality of their sleep can really deteriorate. Studies show that there can be many different reasons for sleep problems in the elderly. These may include:

    • Changes in someone’s circadian rhythm (normal daily and sleep pattern) when they get older so that they feel sleepy earlier in the evening and naturally wake earlier in the morning, even if they go to bed late. Circadian rhythm timing is known to be more delicate in older adults.
    • Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnoea.
    • Restless leg syndrome, which is common in those over the age of 65, can interrupt sleep or make it very difficult to get to sleep in the first place.
    • Medication side effects. Many medications taken by older people for a range of conditions might negatively affect sleep in some cases.
    • Existing medical conditions or chronic pain. There is a wide range of medical conditions responsible for making sleeping difficult, and those older people experiencing chronic pain can also struggle to get the rest they need regularly. Some medical issues may also mean that the older person wakes up during the night needing to use the bathroom.

Elderly man struggling to sleep


Potential consequences of poor sleep for the elderly

Losing out on sleep isn’t good at any age, but in elderly people especially, research shows there are links between poor quality sleep over a sustained period and increased risks of developing a range of medical conditions, which can include heart disease, obesity, dementia, depression and increasing the risk of falls.

There can also be the risk of becoming disoriented or confused in people who frequently wake up during the night or cannot comfortably go back to sleep once they are awake. These disorientations can further lead to accidents or falls if they decide to get up and move around in the house at night or very early in the morning. 


Signs that an elderly loved one may be sleeping poorly

While your elderly loved one may tell you that they are having trouble sleeping, it’s not uncommon for older people to not tell anyone about this as they don’t necessarily think that it’s a problem or they don’t want to cause a fuss.

However, there are often some signs that you can look out for when you spend time with your older loved one that could provide some clues if they are missing out on good quality rest.

These can include:

Someone elderly falling asleep while sitting during the day

It’s common for people of all ages to take short naps, but if your older loved one is regularly falling asleep during the day whilst sitting down or admits to frequent drowsiness during the daytime, it could be a sign that they are not getting enough sleep at night.

Older person asleep in a chair

An older person being unusually irritable or short-tempered

Being tired can cause anyone to feel a bit more irritable or snappy than usual, and the same can go for anyone elderly who is not getting the rest they need. If your loved one seems to be unusually short-tempered, lacks the usual level of patience or otherwise seems more irritable than is typical for them, this could be a sign that their sleep quality or quantity isn’t great at the moment.

Your older loved one indicating low energy or difficulty in focusing

Another potential sign that an older person is going through sleep issues could be if they complain of feeling unusually fatigued or not having as much energy as they generally do. It could also be they struggle to concentrate or focus on something that they usually wouldn’t have a problem with.

If you think that your older loved one is having problems with sleep, it’s important that you try to talk to them about this, as there may be things that can help them get much better rest and the benefits that this offers, both physically and mentally.


Tips to help older people sleep better

While some of the reasons your elderly loved one might not be sleeping well could be due to things that aren’t easy to resolve, getting into a good sleep routine can still make a big difference to many older people. Tips for drug-free natural sleep remedies for elderly people include:

  • Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day – aiming for around seven to eight hours’ sleep each night
  • Keeping the same bedtime routine whenever possible, e.g. have a warm bath or shower before bed
  • Avoiding caffeine from around eight hours before wanting to go to sleep. This could mean switching to decaffeinated hot drinks from the afternoon onwards
  • Avoiding smoking or drinking alcohol before bed
  • Trying to do something active during the day, preferably outdoors. This could be a walk around the local area or even some time spent in the garden doing gentle exercise (like gardening).

If a medical condition or pain or medications are responsible for causing side effects that interrupt sleep, it is crucial that your loved one speaks to their doctor about their problem. The doctor can prescribe a change in medication or suggest other helpful tips to deal with the medical issues and their sleep troubles.  

Additional help for those elderly waking up at night confused

If your loved one is waking up at night feeling confused or disorientated, it can be a real concern that they might hurt themselves or have an accident or fall.

You might also worry about the effect that tiredness from poor sleep is having during the day too, as it can mean that their awareness of their surroundings or their balance isn’t perhaps as good as it would be if they were getting the rest that they need. It’s a good idea to have a conversation with them about potential hazards in the home and how they can stay as safe as possible.

One solution to providing peace of mind for you and them is to look at an personal alarm for the elderly. This means that if they do have an issue when waking at night, during the day or just want some reassurance at any time, there is an emergency resolution team on hand to help at just the press of a button. 

You might also want to consider a way to monitor your older loved one at home in a way that doesn’t infringe on their privacy by using home sensors - they have no cameras or microphones but instead use a sensor to ‘learn’ their routine and can alert if anything changes or something unexpected happens.

Solutions like these can give your elderly loved ones extra confidence that if something should happen, they can get some help at any time of the day or night, and can bring you real peace of mind when you can’t be with them.

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