Are you having trouble loading this page? Click here to view a text-only version.

Stories

Eldercare Q&A

Longing for a good night’s sleep?

Q: Do older people need less sleep than younger people?

A: No. Older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults: 7 to 9 hours each night. But seniors tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier than when they were younger. Older people also may nap more during the day, which can sometimes make it harder to fall asleep at night.

How many times have you heard someone say, “All I need is a good night’s sleep?” There’s no question that getting enough sleep helps you stay healthy and alert. But many older people don’t sleep well. You shouldn’t wake up every day feeling tired.

There are two kinds of sleep: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Our dreams occur mostly during REM sleep, and we have the deepest sleep during non-REM sleep. As you get older, you spend less time in deep sleep, which may explain why older people are often light sleepers.

If you aren’t getting enough sleep, you can feel irritable, have memory problems or be forgetful, feel depressed, have more falls or accidents, and feel very sleepy during the day.

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are many reasons why older people may not get enough sleep at night. Feeling sick or being in pain can make it hard to sleep. Napping during the day can disrupt sleep at night. Some medicines can keep you awake.

The most common sleep problem in older adults is insomnia: having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. It make take you a long time to fall asleep or you may wake up several times in the night, wake up early and be unable to get back to sleep, or wake up feeling tired. Insomnia can last for days, months, or even years. Sometimes insomnia may be a sign of other problems or a side effect of a medication or an illness. Being unable to sleep can become a habit.

Here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep:

  • Take time to relax before bedtime each night: watch television, read a book, listen to soothing music, or soak in a warm bath.
  • Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends. Avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening, as it may keep you awake at night.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, not too hot or too cold, and as quiet as possible. Have a comfortable mattress, a pillow you like, and enough blankets for the season.
  • Don’t exercise within 3 hours of your bedtime, and try to get outside in the sunlight each day.
  • Large meals close to bedtime can keep you awake, but a light snack in the evening can help you get a good night’s sleep. Drink fewer beverages in the evening. Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, or hot chocolate) late in the day. Alcohol will not help you sleep.
  • After turning off the light, give yourself about 20 minutes to fall asleep. If you’re still awake and not drowsy, get out of bed. When you feel sleepy, go back to bed.
  • Have a good lamp within reach that turns on easily, and put a glass of water next to the bed in case you wake up thirsty. Put nightlights in the bathroom and hall.
  • Remove area rugs so you don’t trip on your way to the bathroom.
  • Try counting slowly to 100. Relax your body: tell yourself that your toes feel light as air and then work your way up the rest of the body saying the same words.

If you feel tired for more than two or three weeks, you may have a sleep problem. Talk to your doctor about changes you can make to get a better night’s sleep. Some seniors who have trouble sleeping turn to over-the-counter sleep aids. But medicines are not a cure for insomnia. Developing healthy habits at bedtime may help you get a better night’s sleep.

For more information, contact the National Sleep Foundation at sleepfoundation.org.