I’ll say a word and you think of the first thing that pops into your mind:
I’m going to hazard a guess that you thought of relaxing… or comfortable… or yes, please.
Or did you think of necessary… required… healthy?
Because those three words are more accurate when thinking about sleep, especially in older adults.
The tricky part is that the correct amount of sleep is necessary, required and healthy. Too little — or too much — can be a detriment to a person’s well-being.
Specific to older adults, the recommended amount of sleep, according to SleepFoundation.org, is seven to eight hours. (Those of us with teenagers may ease up on our high schoolers when we read that the recommended amount of sleep for a 15- to 17-year-old is up to 13 hours.)
Our need for sleep changes as we mature, so does the health hazards of too little — and too much — sleep.
While too little, or unrestful sleep can deprive our bodies (and brains) of beneficial side affects, including lowered blood pressure, increased hormones that encourage tissue growth, and white blood cell production (Four crucial ways that sleep helps the body to heal, Chicago Tribune, 2018); excessive sleep can be just as harmful.
Sleeping too much during a 24-hour period — often as a result of boredom or lack of activity — can actually cause excessive sleepiness and is a recognized symptom of Parkinson’s, depression, anxiety, infection and gastrointestinal disorders. It can also lead to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which are common complaints of more than 60 percent of American adults 50 years and older (SleepFoundation.org).
Helping seniors find the balance of sleep that is appropriate for him/her is not difficult, but it does require collecting data and watching for telltale signs of sleep deprivation or saturation.
Sleep should be a priority for all mature adults. That can mean literally planning your day around restful sleep by adhering to a schedule, developing a bedtime routine and avoiding stimulants during the three hours before planned bedtime.
Adhering To A Schedule
Most assisted living facilities are able to enforce a regular bedtime schedule and will wind down residents more than three hours prior to recommended bedtime. You can help to reinforce this healthy habit by discouraging “screen time” — including television, electronics and cell phones — at night.
A healthy sleep schedule relies not only on a regular bedtime, but observance of a consistent wake-time. It is helpful to wake to an alarm and open window shades immediately upon rising. Standing in sunlight jumpstarts our brain and body for a healthy day. In winter, or for naturally-early risers, consider a dawn-simulating alarm or seasonal-affective disorder lights.
Developing A Bedtime Routine
Any evening ritual can become a reliable relaxation trigger. Brewing a cup of herbal tea, writing in a journal, or simply going through the motions of nightly hygiene will be recognized by the brain as winding-down activities and, when performed regularly, will begin to help feel relaxed and ready for sleep.
Replace television or electronic games with light reading, podcasts or relaxing meditation routines. If your parent enjoys reading on a Kindle or other device, make sure that the screen is set to reduced blue rays or employ blue-blocking reading glasses.
Once settled into a restful position — dark, quiet and comfortable — spend at least 20 minutes focusing on sleep. If, after half an hour, sleep has not come, it is okay to get up and stretch, read or any soothing activity. Light and noise level should remain low, and relaxation should remain a priority.
Avoid Stimulants At/Near Bedtime
The light and sound of television and computers can stimulate the brain on an undetectable level. It may seem like a good idea to fall asleep with the television, but that often leads to distracted and unrestful sleep. Likewise, caffeine, sugar and alcohol activate parts of our brains that inhibit relaxation and should be avoided after dinnertime.
If over-sleeping is a problem, many of these same habits may benefit and help to synchronize seniors. In addition to implementing bedtime routines, incorporate healthy stimuli throughout the day to discourage sluggishness and napping.
Regularly scheduled meals, activities and exposure to sunlight can help seniors remain engaged throughout the day and more prepared for rejuvenating sleep during appropriate hours.
One of the most common complaints of adults in the United States is fatigue, so it stands to reason that healthy sleeping is actually more complicated than it seems it should be. With a little bit of structure and discipline, more restful, regenerative sleep is within everyone’s grasp — teens and seniors alike.
And that will result in healthier, happier people. Young, old and you.