Sweet Dreams: A Guide to Managing Sleep Changes in One's Older Years

Insomnia and the inability to stay asleep are common complaints of older adults. While it is not uncommon for older adults to sleep more lightly than they did when they were younger, they still need a good night’s sleep. Having insomnia or feeling sleepy throughout the day could be indicative of underlying problems.

Just as with other physical symptoms, sleep quality can be associated with general health. Older adults with healthy sleep patterns may sleep less or less deeply but will feel rested and energetic during the day. Seniors who get less sleep and are tired and have a lack energy may need to address the underlying causes of their insomnia and nocturnal wakefulness.

Insomnia and Wakefulness

Many factors can contribute to insomnia and wakefulness. Lack of exercise, improper diet, stress and unstructured days may cause some seniors to have insomnia. Napping during the day is a major disrupter of night slumber.

Medications can interfere with normal circadian rhythms and cause drowsiness during the day or alertness at night. Physiological factors such as night-time pain, illness, dementia, heart disease or problems breathing while sleeping (sleep apnea) can interfere with sleep. Insomnia and wakefulness are also strongly associated with psychological factors such as depression or anxiety. Bad sleeping habits will have you awake late in the night and up before the roosters in the morning.

Improving Sleep Quality

The first step is to assess and change any poor sleep habits. Poor sleep habits include drinking alcohol, caffeine or too many fluids in the evenings; smoking (nicotine affects sleep); exercising before bed; and eating late meals. It is important to associate the bed with sleep and intimacy by not reading, working, eating, or watching television in bed. Also, seniors should not try to go to bed when they just are not tired.

Some studies indicate that increasing the amount of time spent in bed can actually interrupt normal circadian rhythms. Limiting bed time to 7 to 8 hours may improve sleep quality. Additionally, seniors should limit napping, which can cause nighttime wakefulness and engage in relaxation techniques before bedtime.

Senior adults who experience insomnia may want to talk with their doctors to determine if physical problems or medications are affecting their sleep. Keep a note pad by your bed and record your experience when you are unable to sleep.

This information will help the doctor start down the correct insomnia path faster. Be sure to discuss any physical or breathing discomfort, pain, urinary problems or other factors you notice that are keeping you awake. Also note the amount of caffeine and alcohol you ingest and whether you feel anxious, stressed, sad, depressed or nervous.

Identifying physical or psychological problems or sleep disorders and treating them can help individuals overcome insomnia and sleep interruptions, so you can get a better, more restful night’s sleep, at least some of the time!


Kristine Watson is the General Manager of Comfort Keepers, which provides home health services to seniors and their families. She can be reached at 239-4391 or ck942@comfortkeepers.com.