All Articles

Seniors and Sleep: How Much They Need and Tips for Better Sleep

by CareAcademy | Sep 25, 2018 | caregiver | 0 Comments


The Relationship Between Sleep and Seniors [1]

As we age, it becomes increasingly difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep - studies have found that about 36% of women and 13% of men (all over the age of 65) take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.  The reasons why seniors have trouble sleeping include:

  • Less hormones and chemicals
    • Our bodies generate less hormones and chemicals with age, including those that help us sleep, like Melatonin.     
  • Neurological and medical conditions
    • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease affect the parts of the brain that control sleep.  In addition, medical conditions such as arthritis can cause pain during sleep, making it difficult to do so.  Some individuals also suffer from Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD), “...which causes one to kick involuntarily during sleep…”[1] Prostate conditions in men also cause them to urinate often during the night.
  • Side effects of medication
    • Side effects from certain medications can cause sleep difficulties, as does taking multiple medications.
  • Sleep disorders
    • Sleep disorders also become more prevalent with age, the most common being obstructive sleep apnea.  Insomnia and Restless Leg Syndrome are also common conditions in seniors.

Consult your client’s doctor if you notice any symptoms or behaviors when your client is sleeping.


Underlying Problems in Lacking Sleep [3]

There are a variety of underlying problems in lacking sleep.  It’s important to keep track of said problems and report them to the client's doctor.  Some possible underlying problems include:

  • Poor sleep habits/environment
    • Irregular sleep hours
    • Consumption of alcohol or caffeine before bedtime
    • Falling asleep with the television on
  • Pain from medical conditions
  • Lack of exercise
    • Regular exercise and movement during the day can promote a good night’s sleep.  If your client is too sedentary, they may never feel sleepy or may always feel too sleepy.
  • Lack of social engagement
    • Social activities can keep energies up during the day, leading to a good night’s sleep.  Consider taking your client to a seniors’ group or an adult education class.
  • Lack of sunlight
    • Sunlight helps regulate sleep-wake cycles and melatonin levels.  To increase sunlight within the home, keep shades open during the day or use a light therapy box.  Do not let your senior go outside without sun protection. To learn more about senior sun protection and the dangers of the sun, click here.  


The Dangers of Inadequate Sleep [1]

It’s very significant to sleep an adequate amount, regardless of age.  However, it is particularly important for seniors. Our bodies clean our blood through liver circulation and regenerate cells while we sleep.  Thus, lack of sleep can cause individuals to become more susceptible to illnesses, which can be especially dangerous for seniors as immune systems weaken with age.  In addition, lacking sleep can increase the risk of falls in older adults. Some research has also found a significant correlation between little sleep and weight gain.  Moreover, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety (which are common in the elderly) are heightened with decreased sleep.


The Amount of Sleep Seniors Need [1]

Research has found that seven to nine hours of sleep per night is sufficient for all ages, including seniors.  However, your client’s doctor may find an amount that’s best for your client that’s not in this range. If your client has had trouble sleeping, be sure to report this.


Sleeping Tips for Older Adults [3]

Consult with your client’s doctor before trying any of these tips.

  • Boost melatonin levels
    • Artificial lights can decrease melatonin levels.  Increase them by using low-wattage bulbs (where it is safe to do so) and turning off all screens (TV, computer, phone, and tablet) at least one hour before bed.  In this regard, refrain from letting your client read from a backlit device at night, such as an iPad. Instead, utilize “ eReader that requires an additional light source.”[3]
  • Create a healthy sleep environment
    • Ensure that the client’s bedroom is dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable.  Seniors are typically sensitive to noise, light, and heat, all of which can cause sleeping problems if they are disruptive.  Some individuals have found relief in using a sound machine to block unwanted noise. Additionally, you may find help in moving clocks in the bedroom out of view.  These light/noise from these clocks can disrupt sleep, and the ticking may cause anxiety.
  • Have a consistent sleep schedule
    • Your client should wake up and go to bed at the same times every day to promote sleep-wake cycles.
  • Engage in relaxing bedtime activities
    • Play relaxing music or try a relaxation technique such as meditation to calm the client before bed.

There are also diet changes and tips to help improve your client’s sleep.  Consult with your client’s doctor before trying any of these tips.

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol
    • Including coffee, tea, and soda.  Even if your client drinks these in the morning, they can still cause trouble sleeping at night.  Also avoid the consumption of alcohol, as it can disrupt sleep.
  • Consume sleep-promoting snacks before bed
    • Low-sugar cereal, yogurt, and warm milk can all help promote rest.
  • Decrease consumption of sugary and refined carbohydrate foods
    • A diet that is high in sugar and refined carbs can increase wakefulness at night.  Examples of these foods include white bread, pasta, white rice, and French fries.
  • Avoid spicy foods and large meals before bed
    • Spicy foods and large meals can cause discomfort and indigestion.

In this regard, foods that promote healthy sleep in seniors include:[4]

  • Potassium and magnesium-rich fruits
    • Potassium and magnesium relax the muscles and calm the nervous system, thus promoting healthy sleep.  Bananas, apples, apricots, and peaches contain high amounts of these nutrients.
  • Cherries
    • Cherries contain a lot of melatonin.
  • Complex carbohydrates
    • Complex carbs are different than refined carbs .  Complex carbs include sweet potatoes, oatmeal, popcorn, and other whole grains, all of which can help promote sleep based on their ability to increase tryptophan levels.
    • Try mashed sweet potato with honey before bed; a small serving of sugar-free oatmeal or sugar-free cereal; or popcorn that’s low-calorie, high-fiber.
  • Lean protein
    • Similarly to complex carbs, lean proteins are also high in tryptophan.  Lean protein includes peanut butter, eggs, low-fat cheese, and lean cuts of turkey, chicken, or fish.
    • Try an egg on whole-grain toast; peanut butter with bananas; low-fat cheese with crackers; or lean turkey on a rice cake.
  • Healthy (Unsaturated) Fats
    • Unsaturated fats help increase serotonin levels, which help promote sleep.  Examples of healthy fats include avocados, peanut butter, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and cashews.  Try mashed avocado on whole-grain toast.
  • Warm milk and decaffeinated herbal teas
    • Contain tryptophan.  Herbal teas to promote sleep include chamomile and peppermint.  Make sure the teas are not caffeinated.

Mental stress is another common cause of lacking sleep in seniors.  Consult with your client’s doctor before trying any of these tips. Try encouraging your client to:  

  • Keep a journal
  • Listen to calming music
  • Read a relaxing book
  • Meditate or do a deep breathing exercise 
Picture of CareAcademy


CareAcademy provides expert-developed online training for senior home care professionals. Home care agencies nationwide rely on CareAcademy for the professional development of their employees and for meeting state certification requirements.

Subscribe to receive the latest posts filled with bright ideas from our community!

FREE Family Caregiving Class

Essential Skills for Family Caregivers

This CareAcademy class was created to provide family caregivers with essential tips and support to make this part of life a little easier to navigate. Topics covered include:

  • Infection Control
  • Personal Care
  • Transportation
  • Nutrition
  • Communication
  • Managing Stress

Being a family caregiver can be deeply emotionally satisfying. At times, it can also be stressful and overwhelming. Caregiving is a big commitment and older adults may need a wide range of different types of assistance.