If you are a caregiver, you may find it difficult to get enough sleep. At least I did. I was only in my forties at the time I was caring for my parents, but good sleep becomes even more of a problem if you are over 65. Further, as many seniors will attest to, it seems harder and harder to stay asleep through the night as we grow older.
Is there anything we can do to try to fall asleep and stay asleep all night long? Yes! According to geriatrician Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, MPH, MACP, my co-author on The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents from the Perils of Modern Healthcare, there are five highly effective remedies for achieving a restorative night’s sleep that are readily available to us. Importantly, none of these involves sleeping pills, which can be dangerous for people over 65. Studies show that seniors who use sleeping pills have an increased risk of falling (and breaking a hip or shoulder!), as well as mounting confusion and cognitive decline.
Geriatricians concur that the following strategies can help us get the best night’s sleep we possibly can…and wake up refreshed and with the energy we need to accomplish all the demands on our time.
1. GET GOOD AND TIRED!
Before the advent of cell phones, video games, streams of movies, and scores of distractions on the Internet and social media, young people spent much more time outside—running and playing. And guess what? They slept great. But the fact is, as we get older, we are not spending entire days running about. This lack of activity means it’s hard to feel really tired at bedtime. The solution? Be as physically active as possible during the day, and exercise. Take a walk after dinner. Sleep patterns dramatically improve with more activity during the day. And, for those who like to nap (especially exhausted caregivers) make sure it’s for no longer than one hour and only in the early afternoon.
2. MAINTAIN YOUR CLOCK
A person’s natural internal clock patterns are generally hardwired from birth. It is possible, though, to interfere with our innate cycles and disrupt our sleep. The worst thing we can do to unsettle our slumber is to expose ourselves to “blue light” in the evening. That’s because the brain conceptualizes blue light as morning. And it will wake back up! Blue light comes from TV, computers, and smart phones. Ideally, all three should be avoided in the evening. Another tip: Get bright light in the morning by being outside or using a light box. It is a great way to tell the brain that it’s time to wake up!
3. MANAGE FLUID INTAKE
Many people—especially women and older men— need to get up several times per night to urinate, which certainly interrupts sleep. To prevent dehydration, everyone should drink six eight-ounce glasses of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated liquid daily, but it helps to take liquids earlier in the day. Not consuming fluids at least three hours before going to bed greatly reduces the need for nighttime urination.
4. PUT YOUR WORRIES ON HOLD
Dr. Eckstrom has a simple trick that has helped countless people sleep better, especially if they tend to be worriers, and what caregiver isn’t? Keep a pad of paper and a pen next to the bed. Before going to sleep, write down everything that is worrying you and everything you need to do the next day. If you wake in the night worrying and tossing and turning over something, sit up and add it to your list so you can remember to do it the next day. This simple trick often can truly relieve anxiety and let your mind rest.
5. PRACTICE GOOD SLEEP HABITS
Keeping a regular bedtime, and the same awakening time, helps our internal clock stay stable. Sometimes, though, it seems impossible to fall asleep and stay asleep. When this is the case, and you can’t fall asleep after lying in bed for 20 minutes, get up and read until you feel sleepy. Then, try again. If you still can’t fall asleep after another 20 minutes, repeat the process. It helps to avoid heavy meals within four hours of bedtime, and avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine. Remember, too, that chocolate contains caffeine—that piece of rich chocolate cake after dinner may keep you awake! It also helps to implement a bedtime routine, such as reading a book, taking a warm bath and/or writing in a journal. And before lying down, make sure your environment—temperature, lighting, ambient noise—is comfortable.
For all of us as we grow older, especially if we are busy caregivers, restorative sleep can greatly increase our quality of life. If after practicing these remedies you still can’t sleep, be sure to talk to your doctor. Without sleep, life can get you down! For most people, though, these strategies can help you take charge of your life. We can learn to befriend and to work with our own internal clocks. Safe, non-medication approaches can give us the relief we are seeking. A goal for all caregivers is to say, with positive affirmation, “Good night!”
Click here to purchase Marcy’s book, The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents—and Ourselves— from the Perils of Modern Healthcare.