Navigating Sleep Challenges in Seniors

Feb 18, 2024 | Blog Articles, Ageing

It’s exhausting to wake frequently in the night.
Sleep is a fundamental aspect of one’s well-being, at every age. Yet as we age, its elusive grasp can become even more pronounced. Sleep patterns change – with many seniors having a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep.

In this article, we delve into the causes and complexities of senior sleep problems, offering insights and strategies to help you reclaim restful nights and enhance your overall quality of life.

Understanding Senior Sleep Challenges:

Seniors often face a myriad of obstacles when it comes to achieving a good night’s sleep. From medical conditions and medication side effects to the natural changes in sleep patterns that accompany ageing, there are numerous factors at play.

Identifying Common Reasons for Poor Sleep:

To effectively address senior sleep problems, it’s crucial to identify the underlying causes.
Common culprits include:
– discomfort from medical conditions,
– medication side effects,
– frequent urination,
– irregular sleep schedules,
– excessive daytime napping,
– prolonged time spent in bed,
– chronic pain, and conditions like dementia.

By recognising these factors, you or your caregiver can tailor interventions to meet the individual needs of seniors.

Strategies for Improving Senior Sleep:

Improving senior sleep requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses lifestyle changes, environmental modifications, and targeted interventions.

Here are some strategies to consider:

1.Keep a sleep diary:
Maintain a sleep diary to track your patterns and discuss them with your healthcare provider.
Take your diary with you when you meet, and use it as a base to discuss potential adjustments to medication.
Ask if pain from medical conditions or medication side effects could be causing problems with sleep.
Find out if decreasing doses, changing medication or changing the timing of your intake could improve the situation. Or if there are alternative pain relievers or natural sleeping aids available, that could be safer and helpful alternative.

2. Lifestyle Adjustments:
Even if your sleep is erratic, try to establish and stick to a consistent sleep routine
Decrease the amount of time spent in bed. For example, if you usually sleep from 10pm to 8am, consider moving to an 11pm to 7am schedule.
Limit your daytime napping to promote better sleep quality at night.
Limit caffeine consumption, even during the day. Switch coffee or tea to decaf if you can.
Limit liquids several hours before bedtime. Try to drink more water earlier in the day.

3. Enhancing Comfort:
Assess and optimise your sleep environment. For example, is your mattress hard enough? Is it comfortable?
Is your room to hot – or too cold? Is the room dark enough to encourage sleep.
And experiment with different sleeping positions and support pillows to alleviate discomfort, particularly related to chronic pain. [See article: Sleeping positions that reduce chronic pain]

Chronic pain

If you’re sleeping in a position that doesn’t properly support your body, the extra pressure will only exacerbate any existing pain. By aligning and supporting the body correctly, you will not only sleep more comfortably, but reduce the pain. And that in turn should reduce the number of times you wake up during the night.

See: 11 tips of how best to position your body to maximise support and reduce pain here. You will know your own body, its aches, pain and personal preferences, so experiment and adjust until you find a position that works well for you.

Addressing Sleep Challenges in Dementia:

Dementia worsens sleep and poor sleep worsens dementia. It’s a vicious cycle. Thankfully, scientific research has shown several ways to mitigate this harmful cycle. You or your caregivers can implement the below evidence-based strategies, including:

Light Exposure Management:
Our minds depend on natural light to help maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, so there needs to be a clear distinction between the two. Regulate exposure to natural light during the day and minimise artificial light at night. If mornings are dark, consider using light therapy lamps to supplement daylight exposure, particularly in the morning.

Physical Activity:
Excercise. Researchers found that daily habits of using a light therapy lamp (as above) and walking helped people with dementia to sleep 32% more during the night. Not only that, they also woke up an average of 5 times less during the night. Any simple exercise will help: so walk, lift weights or canned goods, do some seated exercises, or work on some chores together. Note: The Alzheimer’s Association recommends earlier in the day to promote better sleep quality.

Relaxation Techniques:
Play relaxing sounds before and during bedtime. Listening to music has been shown to increase deep sleep and REM stages, which restore energy, relax the muscles, and lower blood pressure.
It could be music, nature sounds, or just static white noise. No vocals, that tends to keep the brain active, alert and engaged.

Aromatherapy and Hand Rubs:
Research shows that breathing in certain essential oils like lavender, sweet orange, and cedarwood help people with dementia to have longer, uninterrupted periods of sleep throughout the night.
You can disperse the oils using a diffuser, by putting a few drops on a towel draped over the pillow at bedtime, or even using an aromatherapy lotion.


Navigating senior sleep challenges requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the unique needs and circumstances of each individual. By understanding the underlying factors contributing to poor sleep and implementing targeted interventions, you or your caregiver can achieve restorative sleep and improve your overall well-being.