One of the more common issues that those with dementia have is sleep problems, either too much, a lack of it or not being able to get comfortable and then getting up again. Unlike healthy adults, who can’t sleep, elderly people tend to feel quite disorientated when tired and may not be able to tell their carer why.
This can lead to odd behaviour like getting dressed again, wandering around their room or house for long periods and trying to cook something alone. Sleep isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity and even the most patient person can get crabby if they haven’t had enough shut-eye.
However, like many other everyday activities, dementia tends to mess with people’s rest. So much so that depending on the type of dementia, it can affect their mental and physical well being differently. One of the issues is, of course, sundowning which is a much-misunderstood phenomenon, even in the medical community. No one knows exactly why sundowning, an increase in aggressive, or agitated behaviour at dusk occurs. But it is suggested it’s due to the person’s Circadian Rhythm, or ‘body-clock’ being disrupted. Another problem can be a lack of REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep and this can often be one of the first signs of Lewy body-related dementia.
So now that we’ve talked about why people with dementia have problems sleeping let’s see what can be done about it. Obviously, it’s best to try sleeping naturally, without medication, and to keep a record of how much deep sleep a person is getting. Statistically, older people tend to sleep less anyway- only getting on average around five-six hours per night. An added complication is that those with dementia tend to space out their sleep, catnapping in the daytime, so they don’t have enough significant rest in one go. Of course, we’re not suggesting that you keep them awake all day but limiting daytime napping may lead to better, more restful sleep in the long run.
It’s also crucial that they’re cosy and warm but not to the point where they feel stifled or trapped under the covers. A light- to medium duvet should suffice and it’s always good to invest in good quality pillows. Something that may be particularly useful for those with dementia is a Tempur pillow. Similar to a Tempur mattress, yet more affordable, this pillow remembers, through memory foam, how someone likes to sleep and cradles their head comfortably.
Memory pillows are also fantastic for those who complain about ‘firmness’ as the pillow itself is soft but you still have much-needed head/neck support. Our founder swears by a Tempur pillow. These pillows can be used in a bed, or armchair and will help prop someone up so they’re not slouched and can breathe easily. Remember, if your loved one tends to doze off a lot you don’t want them accidentally hurting themselves via a crick in the neck. Another tip for good sleep is to go caffeine free or increase the number of herbal teas that they drink. While stimulation is good it needs to be the right sort and not the equivalent of injecting them with rocket fuel before bedtime!
Remember, the bedroom should be a place of sanctuary so remove anything too distracting and check the lights aren’t too bright, or the curtains too thin. Many old people, due to no longer feeling steady on their feet, can become afraid of the dark so a small nightlight can be beneficial. An audiobook or relaxation tape can also be useful when easing them into sleep. No matter what you decide together it’s vital that you establish a bedtime routine that they become familiar with.
If nothing else works then over-the-counter sleep medication may be an option if your loved one is getting up multiple times, not settling and suffering from sleep deprivation. However, ‘Z’ drugs, either benzodiazepines or something else can have side effects and may make them drowsy, and more uncooperative in the daytime, always consult your doctor first.