Our internal biological clocks begin to change as we grow older. Many seniors may have difficulty sleeping through the night, or find themselves napping more often throughout the day. However, these sleep problems are more pronounced in an elderly person with dementia. While sleep problems can occur at any stage of the disease, they seem to be more common in the later stages.
Dementia and Sleep Disturbances
It’s not entirely known why dementia causes such disruptions in sleep patterns. However, it’s thought that like the changes that occur with memory and behavior, sleeping habits also change due to the effect dementia has on the brain. Sundowner’s Syndrome is the term used to describe the confusion and agitation that can set in at dusk and continue throughout the evening hours for dementia sufferers. Some of the other changes and problems dementia can cause in sleep include:
- Shifts in the sleep-wake cycle. Dementia sufferers may feel drowsy throughout the day and take frequent naps, which leads to being unable to fall asleep at night. Some may even experience a complete reversal in the sleep-wake cycle, feeling wakeful only throughout the nighttime hours. Studies have shown that those with dementia will spend about 40% of their time in bed at night wide awake and take naps throughout the day.
- Trouble staying asleep. Once in bed, those with dementia may fall asleep but are unable to stay asleep. Or, they make wake up often and simply stay awake, unable to lie still and get the rest they need.
- Nighttime wandering. When dementia sufferers wake in the night, it’s common for them to become confused, agitated, and unsure of what time it actually is. They may get up out of bed and leave their room, or even yell out and disrupt others around them.
Helping Loved Ones with Dementia get a Good Night’s Sleep
When you’re caring for a loved one with dementia, the disturbances in their nightly sleep patterns can take a toll on your health, too. However, it’s important for you to stay calm and remember that their behaviors aren’t deliberate. First and foremost, attend to their needs, remind them that it’s nighttime and try to guide your loved one back to bed.
There are a few other things you can do to try to lessen any dementia sleep problems that may be occurring, including:
- Plan activities throughout the day. Keep your loved one as active as possible during the day; go on a walk, have them help with household tasks, and keep their minds busy, too. Avoid evening physical activities, however, as this could stimulate them near bedtime.
- Provide a comfortable environment for sleeping. The room should be kept at a temperature that is neither too warm nor too cool, and the bed should be comfortable and supportive. Install a nightlight in the bedroom, too, in case they awaken in the middle of the night. Being in total darkness can cause confusion.
- Seek sunlight in the morning. Being exposed to morning light, whether real or artificial, can help restore the circadian rhythm often disrupted by dementia and help reset internal clocks.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. The caffeine in soda, coffee and tea can contribute to sleeplessness, so be sure to avoid any products with caffeine later in the day. As alcohol can enhance confusion, try to avoid any alcoholic beverages, too.
- Limit noise and distractions in the evening. Provide a quiet environment towards the evening; discourage television watching and instead play soft music to get your loved one to relax.
- Manage medications. Some medications can have an effect on sleeping patterns, so talk to the doctor and find out when is the best time to administer certain medications. Sleeping pills are generally discouraged for dementia sufferers, as these can increase confusion and the risk for falls.
Establish a nighttime routine that includes using the restroom, getting into comfortable bedclothes, turning on the nightlight, a favorite blanket, etc. This will help your loved one stay calm and relaxed as the evening approaches, allowing for the best night’s sleep possible.
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