Sleep is vital to health and well-being, and seniors need as much of it as other adults. But getting a solid night of shuteye can be increasingly challenging with age. Body clock shifts can cause older people to get drowsy in the early evening and awaken in the early morning. And health issues of all sorts can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
It’s easy to see why seniors often turn to sleep aids for help. But using them can be especially risky for this group. Possible side effects include impaired balance and coordination, confusion and dizziness.
Instead of medication, these simple strategies can help you or someone you’re caring for get a good night’s sleep.
Talk to a doctor. If you snore loudly or occasionally wake up gasping, it’s smart to make sure that obstructive sleep apnea isn’t destroying your sleep quality.
Shake a leg. Exercise during the day can make for more restful sleep at night. Devote 30 minutes or so most days of the week to physical activity, such as walking, swimming laps, yoga or tai chi. Exercising outdoors, in the sunlight, can be especially helpful.
Run a bath. Studies have found that raising the body temperature by soaking in a warm tub a few hours before bedtime can make it easier to fall asleep and to sleep well. There’s some evidence that a warm footbath of at least 20 minutes in the evening before bed may also help.
Freshen up the bed. In a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) poll, more than 75 percent of people surveyed said they slept better in a bed that smelled and felt fresh. The NSF recommends washing sheets and pillowcases once a week, washing mattress covers in hot water and sprinkling baking soda on mattresses to draw out moisture (leave on overnight, then vacuum).
Turn to sleep-inducing scents. Certain scents can help bring sweet dreams. Lavender and jasmine in particular have been found in studies to be relaxing, but any soothing aroma that appeals to you or someone you’re caring for can help induce sleep. Try spraying pillowcases with a scented spray or diffusing an essential oil throughout the bedroom.
Take the last coffee break before early afternoon. Caffeine in any form (coffee, tea, cola, chocolate) is a stimulant that can interfere with sleep. It can take quite some time for caffeine to clear from the body. In one study, people who consumed 400 milligrams of caffeine — about the equivalent of two large cups of coffee — six hours before bedtime lost an entire hour of sleep.
Skip the nightcap. A glass of wine or shot of bourbon may make you sleepy initially, but alcohol can inhibit restful sleep and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. It reduces REM sleep, the most restorative kind. It’s also a diuretic, meaning you may need to get up during the night to visit the bathroom.
Keep the bedroom quiet and cool. During sleep, your ears continue to register sound. If the bed is near a window or a thin wall, try moving it to the middle of the room. Heavy drapes muffle outside noise. A white noise machine or ear plugs can also help.
Power down devices. The light emitted by cellphone, laptop, tablet, e-reader and TV screens can interfere with sleep in several ways. Try to shut off these devices at least an hour before you hit the hay. Turning off the TV can also prevent staying up later than intended. Reading a magazine or book on paper and listening to music are good alternatives.
Maura Rhodes is a health journalist based in Montclair, New Jersey, who has written about caregiving throughout all ages and stages of life.