If you live with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, he or she may be keeping you up at night—even keeping you up all night—with restlessness just as a newborn baby would. But the feeling of dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient overnight is worlds apart from that of dealing with a beautiful new baby’s nighttime fussing. In fact, it can be maddening, exhausting and frustrating for caregivers.
Difficulty falling or staying asleep as well as “sundowning” (becoming agitated in the late afternoon or early evening) are common among people with dementia. Although medication can help calm agitation in a person with dementia, it won’t necessarily improve his or her sleep quality. In fact, medication for sleep can make patients drowsy at the wrong times and unsteady on their feet, causing falls. It also can increase confusion and reduce a patient’s self-care abilities. But there is a safe, effective nondrug technique that can relieve dementia-related sleep problems—acupressure. And if you are a caregiver, you can easily learn it and do it at home.
Acupressure is based on the same principles as acupuncture—but no needles are used. Acupressure simply involves using the fingers and hands to press certain parts of a person’s body. The pressure is applied to meridian points, a highway of human energy flow, explained Michael Reed Gach, PhD, acupressure educator and founder of Acupressure.com, an online hub for self-healing. Acupressure can release stress and tension, increase circulation and reduce pain—all of which leads, as you might imagine, to better sleep.
PROVEN TO IMPROVE SLEEP
Acupressure was recently shown, in a scientific study from Turin, Italy, to relieve sleep problems in nursing home residents who had insomnia and either Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (a mild form of dementia that may or may not worsen to full-blown dementia). The study included 129 people between the ages of 69 and 96 who received acupressure on a pressure point called HT7 every day for eight weeks. (To find HT7, follow a line on the palm side of the hand from the space between the little finger and ring finger to the crease where the hand and wrist meet.) Residents were much better able to fall asleep and stay asleep and also got more overall hours of sleep when they had acupressure treatment. Plus, the need to use sedative drugs for sleep among these residents decreased.
ACUPRESSURE TECHNIQUES FOR YOU
Although having some formal training in acupressure is ideal, anyone can learn the basics of this hands-on therapy to help another person—including a person with dementia. Here is some guidance from Dr. Gach to improve sleep…
When the person with dementia is in bed and ready for sleep, sit beside him or her and…
How much pressure to apply? It should be the kind that “hurts good,” similar to the kind of smarting relief you feel from a nice massage of sore muscles. Although it mildly hurts, it also feels good. So when doing acupressure on a person with dementia, you will have to carefully observe and patiently ask the person about his or her comfort level and not go beyond it. (Explaining that this “massage” will help with sleep can be a good strategy, too.)
Also, although you might think anxiety and aggression are symptoms that might get in the way of giving acupressure to a person with dementia, studies have shown that acupressure and similar hands-on healing techniques, such as massage therapy, are well-tolerated and symptom-relieving solutions for people with dementia. In addition to improving sleep, acupressure relieves anxiety and agitation and decreases aggression and combativeness.
Of course, you can use these acupressure techniques on anyone, including yourself, to help the body naturally fall asleep and sleep well. But these techniques are particularly empowering for caregivers of people with dementia, who may feel helpless in the face of a disease that can only get worse, said Dr. Gach. “Even if you can’t stop the disease or reverse it, you can at least be empowered to help with the symptoms.”