|“Mark Twain, New Hampshire, 1905,” by
The New York Times. Public domain.
Sleep health in the elderly can be compromised for any number of reason. Aging itself means less human growth hormone is released because elderly people experience fewer deep sleep stages in their golden years; these are the sleep stages when HGH is produced.
On top of that, chronic health conditions and their medications can disrupt sleep health.
Elderly people who continue with unhealthy lifestyle habits like abusing alcohol, smoking and poor eating habits can expect to see the consequences result in impairments in their sleep health.
In addition, many elderly folks deal more regularly with the loss of loved ones; bereavement itself can be hazardous to good sleep.
Some of these things can’t be changed easily for elderly people by their loved ones. However, there are other things that families can do to help out grandparents who might not be practicing the best sleep hygiene (or who might not have the opportunity to do so).
Take a look at these options when you next visit your elderly loved ones, whether they live independently or reside in a nursing facility or retirement community where they have access to services.
1. Consider the quality of the actual mattress they are sleeping on. Do they need more support? Is their bed hard for them to get in and out of? Sometimes elderly people choose an uncomfortable couch for sleeping over an inaccessible bed. Neither option is acceptable. Also consider whether they need additional pillows, a wedge to help them sleep more upright or risers for the head of the bed; elevating a bed at the top can make sleeping much more comfortable. Sometimes elderly folks prefer a reclining chair to a bed; you might discuss this option. Finally, make sure they have comfortable, clean sheets and an adequate amount of blankets.
2. Look at the light sources in the room. The elderly do need additional nightlights in the evening so they can be safe walking from one room to the next. However, rooms with too much additional light (from house lights outside or streetlamps or traffic) can make it harder for them to fall asleep do to lack of melatonin production. Some facilities have regular visits from ambulances and aid cars in the evenings, and the added light from these vehicles can also disturb the sleep of residents. Consider adding appropriate window treatments and/or nightlights to fix lighting problems in your loved one’s living quarters.
3. Listen for noise. Not all elderly people are hard of hearing. Many hear just fine, and that means they can hear their neighbors’ television sets (especially if their neighbors are hard of hearing!), the traffic outside, the noise coming from nearby businesses during the evening. If they can use earplugs in a noisy environment, encourage them to do so. Setting up a white noise machine can also help block out noise at night so they can sleep better.
4. Ask if they are always cold or always hot. Sometimes, facilities and community housing have less than ideal temperature controls, especially if the structures are older. While it’s not unusual for elderly people to have a very limited bracket of comfort when it comes to ambient temperature, sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting thermostats, blocking drafts, using carefully placed fans or having layers of blankets on hand. In addition, make sure to review medications regularly and consider their side effects and interactions if your elderly loved one is complaining about being too hot or cold all the time. Finally, keep in mind seasonal changes. What we as adults can tolerate can be far too extreme for our grandparents. Ultimately, a sleeping space that is too hot or too cold for them will be hard for them to sleep in.