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Learn why seniors have difficulty sleeping and actions to remedy it

What’s the one thing that humans often need the most yet is often short-changed, specifically later in life? Sleep. As we age, despite crawling into bed earlier at night, we find ourselves tossing and turning more and often waking up earlier that we did in our younger years.

In the book, The Senior Sleep Solution: A Guide to Improving Sleep Later in Life, co-authors Kathy N. Johnson, PhD, CMC; James H. Johnson, PhD; and Lily Sarafan, MS agree that sleep can become compromised as we get older but they also offer some excellent senior sleep solutions for achieving better sleep night after night. Johnson and Sarafan begin by defining sleep and exploring possible reasons for why we sleep - answers to the latter have not been completely pinpointed yet. They write that, “Despite decades of research, the question of why we sleep still has no definitive answer. Educated guesses, as well as experiments and observations, have given researchers clues about what might be going on in the body and the brain during sleep. It is fairly obvious, for instance, that the body uses the downtime to restore and repair itself, but we cannot yet explain the exact process by which this repair occurs. We also cannot point to any one organ that suffers obvious damage in people or animals that die from sleep deprivation.”

While Johnson and Sarafan cannot provide any concrete answers as to why people need sleep, they do offer answers for people who may be sleep-deprived - and there is no shortage of reasons why you can’t fall asleep easily or slumber for seven - eight hours uninterrupted. If you are having trouble, there can be a number of reasons.

The Most Common Cause of Sleep Problems

The most common cause of sleep problems is noise. “Across age groups, noise is cited as one of the chief causes of occasional insomnia. Whether it’s loud housemates, the noise from the television or radio, or a loudly snoring partner, the brain can become distracted by processing sounds rather than preparing for sleep.” If noise is a contributing factor with you, try removing the television and/or other electronics from the bedroom, discuss excessive noise with your neighbors, complain to property management, hang thick curtains over the windows (to muffle sound), purchase a white noise machine, try wearing earplugs, and/or move to another location.

Johnson and Sarafan continue to explain other sleep deterrents as being pain, excessive alcohol or caffeine, and anxiety or worry, Another reason might be sleep apnea. They also explain, “as we grow older, the tissue in the back of our throats loses some of its tone and becomes slack. This can lead to partial or complete airway obstruction, which can in turn lead to snoring or more severely obstructive sleep apnea”.

How to Remedy Sleep Apnea in Older Adults

There are a number of over-the-counter medications (e.g. Melatonin) which may be of help; however, a person with sleep apnea may have to use a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (or CPAP) machine. These machines will supply a regular airflow to the sleeper and prevent snoring. Perhaps one of the hardest things for CPAP machine users to get used to is wearing a mask, after finding the right-fitting mask, it can be quite comfortable and worth it to sleep more soundly. The hose is long enough to allow for some movement from the sleeper. Depending on the climate you live in, it can be advisable to get a heated hose (which plugs into a separate electrical outlet). Heated hoses will prevent condensation forming inside the hose and stop any annoying sputtering or even water splashing in your face.

What else can disrupt a person’s sleep? Johnson and Sarafan offer other answers including Restless Legs Syndrome, dreams and/or nightmares, mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even a fear of sleep. This last reason may sound odd; however, it can happen! “One of the most commonly cited reasons is recurring nightmares”, say the co-authors, but there can be other reasons - the lack of control that happens while a person sleeps, having slept through a previous traumatic event, or even the fear of dying while sleeping. Sleep bruxism - “ a movement disorder that causes people to

grind their teeth together and/or clench their jaws while sleeping” - can also disrupt a person’s sleep patterns, as can excessive eating just before bedtime.

Wondering how to sleep better as you get older? To find relief from interrupted sleep, Johnson and Sarafan offer up 25 easy recommendations. Some of these include: developing a nightly routine, spending time with pets and preparing for the next day (i.e. leaving items out in a conspicuous spot to grab on your way out the door).

You may have heard similar advice before or this may be all new to you. No matter which, there is a lot here to digest. Promise me that you’ll at least sleep on it?

About the Author(s)

As a former co-caregiver, Rick Lauber helped and supported his own aging parents. His mother had Parkinson's and Leukemia and his father had Alzheimer's. Rick learned that caregiving is challenging and used writing to personally cope.

His stories became two books, Caregiver's Guide for Canadians and The Successful Caregiver's Guide.

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