Promoting Sleep Health for Seniors and Caregivers – How to Fall…
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While sleep does a body and mind good, getting a proper night’s rest cannot always be guaranteed. Our physical and mental health, lifestyle, and environmental issues along with what we eat and drink can all greatly factor in how well we can doze off and sleep overnight. Losing sleep can have disastrous results. Insomnia can be unhealthy (if you are too tired to fight off an infection), frustrating to both you and your partner (who may be kept awake by your tossing and turning), and risky (if you are unable to drive safely).

7 Sleep Management Techniques to Promote Sleep Health

Sleep loss can be helped through what doctors and sleep specialists refer to as “proper sleep hygiene.” These are best practices which have been shown to help people get sufficient sleep. I’ve introduced a number of these habits in my own life and found them quite helpful. Tips for proper sleep hygiene include:

  1. Exercise regularity. The human body loves routine so going to bed (and getting up in the morning) around the same time can be beneficial.
  2. Wind down in the evening. Choose calming activities. A quiet movie is more conducive to relaxation than a violent war movie or distressing newscast.
  3. Soak your feet. While you may find a full bath or shower relaxing, soaking your feet in warm water can be a less extensive task and can have similar results.
  4. Try a medical supplement. Melatonin is one of the most common and can be purchased over-the-counter from pharmacies / health food stores. Other supplement options worth experimenting with include the following:
    • Ginkgo biloba
    • Glycine
    • Valerian root
    • Magnesium
    • Lavender
  5. Consider your lifestyle and other health concerns. Are you experiencing additional stress? Worry? Depression? These conditions can lead to sleep deprivation. Try combatting stressors with meditation, deep breathing, or anything else you find relaxing.
  6. Address other health concerns. Another possibility may be sleep apnea. Here, a person’s breathing may stop overnight – a highly worrisome situation! Sleep apnea can be treated using a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This device will increase air pressure for the sleeper. Getting used to wearing a mask may take some time but there are many options available to ensure the best fit and maximum comfort. If you feel you are suffering from sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your doctor for further testing and discussion.
  7. Keep a sleep journal on your bedside table. This can be a simple notebook in which you can record when you wake up, how long you were awake for, and any irregularities you may have felt or bad dreams you may remember. Having this information to show your doctor, if needed, will help him / her identify poor sleeping patterns and better diagnose the problem.

How Food Affects Our Sleep

What we eat – and when we eat it – may also keep us awake at night. One of the most common reasons for this is digestion. Avoid eating meals (or even snacks) two hours prior to turning in for the night. While you don’t want to go to bed hungry (a grumbling stomach will keep you awake), you don’t want to go to bed with a full stomach either. Heavier foods take longer to digest while excessive liquids (alcohol or otherwise) will result in more bathroom trips overnight.

Foods to Eat to Promote Good Sleep

When your mother offered you warm milk to help you sleep, she was right! Milk contains a nutrient known as Tryptophan. With increased Tryptophan in your system, your body will produce more serotonin and melatonin – both of which will help with relaxation. Drinking a warmed beverage can be very soothing as well. Here are a few other suggestions to try:

  • Oatmeal
  • Kiwis
  • Nuts (specifically almonds and walnuts)
  • Chicken noodle soup

Foods to Avoid Prior to Bedtime

Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning can wake you up. Therefore, it makes sense that drinking a cup of coffee at night can keep you awake. You’ll also want to avoid other foods/beverages containing caffeine (food labels will list ingredients). Here are several other foods to avoid:

  • Ice cream
  • Pizza (or any other fatty foods)
  • Chocolate
  • Grapefruit
  • Hot peppers (or other spicy foods)

Improve Your Environment to Improve Your Sleep

There are many ways to improve your sleep. Create a restful sleeping environment by doing the following:

  • Keep the room dark. Turn off the lights and close the bedroom door. If your partner reads in bed, get him or her a small bedside lamp which will not shine too brightly.
  • Hang heavier blinds/curtains to block outside light. Flashing vehicle headlights or business signage from across the street shining through your bedroom window can be very disruptive to your sleeping patterns.
  • Turn down the furnace. A cooler room temperature may help you sleep. If it gets too cold, add an extra blanket but don’t go overboard. Sliding into a warm bed piled high with blankets may seem cozy but it is possible to be too warm.
  • Replace a digital alarm clock with one with a softer and more calming display light. Alternatively, turn your alarm clock around so the display doesn’t shine in your face.
  • Reduce distractions while you’re in bed. Reading can help relax you while playing an electronic game may engage your brain and keep you awake.
  • Ensure your mattress is comfortable. Flipping the mattress around or over or using a mattress pad can eliminate sags temporarily, but mattresses should be replaced every 7-8 years. When shopping for a new mattress, consider back support, sleeping position, cooling qualities, and value. Evaluate your pillow as well; does it still provide proper head and neck support?
  • Wear an eye mask or ear plugs. Either, or both, of these ideas can help to block out distracting light or noise.

Why Sleep is Good for Your Brain Health

Insomnia continues to be a well-researched subject with some interesting findings, like poor sleep’s link to Alzheimer’s. An article from Psychology Today explained that, “When it comes to mental well-being, sleep matters tremendously. During sleep, the body and brain repair themselves, strengthening the immune system—which has close ties to mental health—bolstering the stress response, and recharging the systems that help regulate emotions, consolidate memories and thoughts, focus, and connect to others. High-quality sleep, in short, can improve someone's life in a number of ways.”

Another article from the Brain & Health Magazine reports that proper sleep has direct impacts on our human brains and found that, “Experts agree quality sleep is critical to cognitive function, especially in the short term. Studies show sleep deprivation hinders learning, impairs cognitive performance, and slows reaction time—like being intoxicated but without the buzz. Scientists recently discovered that sleep and memory storage are inextricably linked as well. Now, they are wondering whether poor sleep contributes to neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline.”

What both these articles (and others like them) are saying is that a brain that is not working becomes a brain that will not continue working and will – in due course –shut down.

While getting to sleep and staying asleep may seem hard to do, the answer may not be that difficult. With some easy adjustments, you can, once again, be resting well and getting the sleep that you need. Sweet dreams!


Sleep and Mental Health (Psychology Today Magazine)

The Benefits of Sleep for Brain Health (Brain & Health Magazine): The Benefits of Sleep for Brain Health

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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