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Sleep Tips for Older Adults

Getting enough sleep is a concern for everyone, not just those above age 65. However, the truth is that seniors have additional challenges that make getting sleep difficult. Some of the very things you need to do for optimal health, such as taking certain medications, may form barriers to good rest.

Here are some ways older adults can wind down each day and promote better sleep, even with these common challenges.

How much sleep do seniors need?

There's no single answer that works for everyone. While 7 to 9 hours of sleep is still considered a good goal to aim for, you may find yourself needing more on some nights and less on others.

If you're more active or recovering from an illness, it's OK to let yourself sleep in a bit. Likewise, if you're feeling bright and alert with fewer hours than that, don't force yourself to stay in bed just because you haven't hit that magic number of sleep hours. When it comes to knowing how much sleep a senior should get, listen to your body.

Live your days for better nights

What you do in the daylight can have a significant effect on how you sleep at night. Some of the things that promote good sleep in your waking hours include:

  • Exercising 15 to 30 minutes a day, as tolerable (just not within 3 hours of bedtime)
  • Getting outside to enjoy the sunshine or sitting near a window or lightbox to get the same benefits
  • Avoiding naps unless necessary
  • Limit fluids right before bed, as they can cause you to get up during the night to use the bathroom

The bedroom is for sleep only

Designate your bedroom as a "sleep and intimacy only" area. Stay out of it for daytime activities unless necessary. Make sure it's dark and cool enough to sleep well. Consider turning your thermostat down in the evenings so your sleeping space isn't too stuffy.

Tips for your bedroom for better sleep

You may also consider moving your alarm clock out of sight so you don't keep looking at it while you try to drift off. The added pressure of seeing your clock can be distressing. Reduce noise with a white noise machine or fan. And if you choose to wear earplugs, be sure you can still hear your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms if they go off. Reduce the impact of outside street lights coming into your room by using black-out curtains to keep your room dark.

These are some simple things you can do to make it easier to sleep. By keeping your room a haven for rest, you'll be in the right frame of mind when you get there at night.

Check your meds

Consider how your current medications may keep you from rest. Some steroids, for example, can cause jitters and restlessness. Taking them within a few hours of bed can keep you awake. Never change your medication schedule without talking to your doctor first, but be aware of what meds do to your energy levels and inquire about changes, if needed.

Get there gradually

Just as you wouldn't stop a cardio workout abruptly without cooling down, you shouldn't check out for the evening without taking some steps to ease into sleep. Some people find a warm bath or reading a relaxing novel to help them transition to sleep mode. Others may close their eyes and listen to peaceful music.

Limit stimulating activities later in the day

Consider activities that don't stimulate your mind or body too much. If you watch the news right before bed, for example, it may cause you stress—something you don't need when trying to relax. You will also want to avoid screens for about 30 to 60 minutes before bed, because the light from TVs, tablets, and phones can interfere with your body's natural sleep response.

Stay on schedule

One of the easier ways you can foster a good sleep experience is to keep your bedtime consistent throughout the week. Avoid staying up too late to watch a movie, and instead, work it into the earlier part of your day. If you do feel tired early in the day, try to stay up to your regular bedtime, if possible.

Once in bed, avoid doing anything to distract you from sleep and use mindfulness exercises to clear your mind and settle down. Deep breathing can help, as well. If you don't fall asleep within 20 minutes of laying down, get up and move around a bit until you try again. Staying in bed too long without sleep can lead to frustration and even stress around sleep, which may hurt your efforts.

Should you take sleep aids?

While there isn't a consensus on the best natural sleep aid for seniors, studies have shown that some supplements may help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep once you're there.

Melatonin

Melatonin is one such supplement, but the FDA doesn't regulate it, and the amount provided in each product may vary. Talk to your doctor before taking melatonin. They can tell you how much you should take each evening.

Tea and other products

You may find a lovely chamomile tea to have a relaxing effect. Some older adults find lavender is soothing and may choose bath products or body lotions with natural lavender essences as a way to unwind. However, these products marketed as natural sleep remedies for elderly adults aren't proven to help you sleep, so don't rely on them to substitute for the behavior changes mentioned above.

Avoid alcohol

You should also avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid. Drinking any amount of alcohol before bed can make it difficult to stay asleep once you get there. It can also be dangerous to drink before sleep if you struggle with balance or mental clarity at night. Alcohol can magnify these problems and put you at risk if you get up for any reason during the night.

Why do seniors have trouble sleeping?

Getting older comes with its share of life changes that don't always accommodate sleep. If you have a painful medical condition, such as arthritis or osteoporosis, you may find your body struggles to relax. Other health conditions that may interfere with sleep include heartburn and reflux, asthma, and frequent urination.

Hormonal changes can also affect sleep. Women dealing with menopause and postmenopause can suffer from hot flashes and sweating that interrupt rest. Talk to your doctor about what treatment may be available to treat these problems with better sleep in mind.

Insomnia and aging may be common, but they don't necessarily need to coexist. If you find yourself unable to get rest, even after trying these tips, talk to your healthcare practitioner about it at your next visit.

Health issues related to bad sleep

The consequences of senior sleep issues are too significant to ignore. Those with sleep disorders are more likely to suffer from:

  • Depression
  • Attention problems
  • Fatigue
  • Memory lapses

Other, more severe health conditions have been linked to poor sleep as well, including diabetes, weight issues, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

Summary

Seniors' sleep problems are common in the overall population, but you don't have to accept them as a part of life. By learning how what you do during the day affects how you sleep at night, you can make simple changes that make it easier to fall—and stay—asleep. If your efforts aren't enough, however, don't delay speaking with your doctor.
You may have never considered the role sleep plays in your overall health, but it's not too late to make positive steps toward better rest. Simply being aware of how sleep and health connect is a strong start.

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