How to cope with sleep problems in the elderly

Changes in sleeping patterns are frequent in older people, and you may notice that it progressively gets worse over time. They may start feeling sleepy earlier in the day, wake up earlier or feel that they are not sleeping so deeply. These tips will help you to cope with any sleep problems that your loved one may be experiencing.


Common reasons for poor sleep in the elderly

There are various physical reasons why your elderly relative may have disturbed sleep. Pain can often make it difficult to fall asleep and to stay sleeping through the night. If your loved one has a health condition such as arthritis, ensure that you discuss appropriate pain relief with their doctor.

They may experience heartburn at night, and a simple remedy such as changing their sleeping position may be enough to relieve the discomfort that is causing disturbed nights.

Many other conditions such as diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease can have an impact on sleep patterns. The need to get up frequently to urinate can also be a cause, and it is a good idea to talk to your loved one’s GP regarding any medical issues.

It is also important to bear in mind that some medications can keep people awake at night, so if you think this may be the case for your relative, discuss it with their doctor.

Why is it essential for older people to sleep well?

It is at least as crucial for the elderly to enjoy a good night’s sleep as it is for younger people because it can help to improve concentration, aid memory and help the body to repair damaged cells and boost the immune system.

Care professionals know that older adults who sleep poorly are more likely to feel excessively sleepy in the daytime, experience memory and attention problems and suffer from depression.

Poor sleep can be responsible for an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer in women and weight problems. It can also contribute to falls at night time, so it is crucial to help your elderly relative to sleep better.

Practical ways of helping your loved one to sleep better

If your loved one receives at least 24-hours of care at home, you may already be aware of aspects of your loved one’s daily life that could be having an impact on their sleeping pattern. Their bedtime routine may not be conducive to a good night’s sleep, so you could discuss this with them and set out a routine for bedtimes that will help them to relax and feel more ready to sleep.

They should avoid stimulating food and drinks before bedtime and do something relaxing, such as reading or watching TV, to distract them away from negative thoughts and worrying about not sleeping.

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If your loved one requires live-in care, this should include ensuring that their bed and bedding is comfortable for them. They might need a new mattress or new pillows to give them the support they need in bed. Some people find synthetic fibres uncomfortable to sleep in, so investing in new cotton bedding might also help to give them a good night’s sleep.

In addition to bedding, the nightclothes that your elderly relative wears might also have a bearing on how well they sleep. If your loved one needs dementia care, they may not be aware if their nightwear is irritating, uncomfortable or restrictive, and you may find that changing to loose cotton sleepwear will help them.

Activity levels

Getting older, your relative may find it increasingly difficult to exercise regularly, especially if they have mobility problems. If they have care at home, or companion care, talk to their carer about accompanying them for short walks in the neighbourhood or possibly going swimming if they are able.

Getting out in the garden can help with exercise and some regular physical activity will help them to feel tired when it comes to bedtime. Getting outside is particularly beneficial because being exposed to daylight can help to stimulate melatonin to be produced in the body. This increases the amount of oxygen in the brain and will improve general health as well as sleeping patterns.

In addition to physical exercise, mental stimulation is also necessary. Encouraging your loved one to participate in hobbies that are mentally stimulating can help to use the brain and make your elderly relative tired and more ready for sleep at night. Puzzles such as crosswords and Sudoku are ideal, but if these are too challenging, a simple jigsaw will also challenge the elderly person’s brain.


Make sure the bedroom where your elderly relative sleeps is dark enough. Particularly if they have started going to bed earlier, the light could make it harder for them to sleep. Investing in blackout curtains or blinds can help them to relax. Any electrical items that can emit light, such as TVs on standby or mobile phones, should be switched off so that they do not provide a distraction.

If they are not comfortable sleeping in total darkness, a night light or a light on the landing outside their room may help, particularly if they need to get up to the toilet during the night.

Considering it’s a place we all spend a significant amount of time in our lives, the bedroom should be a relaxing haven. It will promote sleep and feelings of comfort and wellbeing. Photographs of loved ones may evoke memories of happy times and help them to relax before going to sleep.

If your loved one still does not sleep well, having a regular daytime nap may help them to catch up on the sleep they need. However, you should try to avoid them getting into the habit of having a long sleep during the day, as this could adversely affect their nighttime sleep routine.