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Sleep and dementia

We all know the value of a good night’s sleep. No one feels their best the morning after hours of tossing and turning. But unfortunately for people with dementia, among other troublesome symptoms, sleep can also be affected.

And, as you might expect, sleepless nights for someone with dementia likely also means the same for the carer. 

So why is sleep often impacted? And what can you do to ensure everyone in the household gets their eight hours?

Why does dementia affect sleep?

As we get older, we tend not to need as much sleep as we did when we were teenagers. We often lose the desire to stay in bed well into the afternoon. But while it’s true that older people sometimes find themselves naturally waking at the same time as your typical high-powered CEO, those with dementia often have trouble falling asleep and wake up frequently throughout the night.

We’re not completely sure why dementia can lead to insomnia, but scientists think the condition may interfere with the body clock, causing problems with a person’s sleep-wake cycle. Some dementia medications can also make sleeping more difficult. And depression, which often accompanies dementia, can lead to poor sleep. 

All forms of the condition can affect sleeping, but Lewy body dementia is particularly associated with sleep disturbances and night terrors. 

It’s common for someone with dementia to become more agitated or distressed when it gets dark outside. This symptom is known as ‘sundowning’ or ‘late-day confusion’.

A person with dementia who frequently wakes in the night may try to get up, get dressed and even leave the house. This can be incredibly stressful for the carer and put your loved one’s safety at risk. And if they’re awake during the night, they’re likely to sleep for long periods during the daytime or be very disoriented. 

How to help someone with dementia sleep better

Prioritising your loved one’s sleep increases their safety, improves their quality of life and may even help with the management of their other symptoms. So how can you encourage someone with dementia to get enough sleep at the appropriate time of day? 

Safety first

First of all, you’ll want to reduce the risks of injury if your loved one does wake in the night. Are there any obstacles (such as rugs or furniture) that could prove a tripping hazard, which would be worth removing? You could leave the hall or bathroom light on. Or consider purchasing a bed alarm or a stairgate for further peace of mind. 

Look at the causes

Play detective and look for clues pointing to why your loved one is having trouble sleeping. Could it be their medication? Are they getting up to go to the loo? Perhaps they’re feeling scared and uncomfortable? Could they be in pain?

Pay close attention to the bedroom. Is the temperature comfortable? And do the curtains do a decent job of shutting out the light?

Light up their life

Too much time spent indoors can play havoc with the body clock and not just for those with dementia. Try and get your loved one to go outside twice a day. It doesn’t have to be for very long - even just a few minutes of outdoor light in the morning and early evening can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

If they’re able, encourage the person to engage in a bit of light exercise, such as a gentle walk in the park each day. Physical activity promotes better sleep. 

Smart napping

Who doesn’t love a relaxing nap? It’s one of life’s great pleasures as you get older. But in order to reap the benefits of these microsleeps, it’s best to schedule one earlier in the day - ideally before lunch. An afternoon nap can lead to grogginess, irritability and trouble sleeping at night. 

Check the water

Dementia can make people less aware of basic needs such as hunger and thirst. It’s therefore vital someone with the condition gets enough fluid during the day.

However, try to limit caffeine intake after lunch. If your loved one is reluctant to cut down, caffeine-free alternatives taste very similar to the real deal these days.

Avoid giving drinks too close to bedtime, as this can make waking up to answer calls of nature more likely.

Relax and unwind

Routine is so important for people with dementia. It can make people feel more secure and less anxious. Focus on creating a calm environment a few hours before bedtime. 

Think about the person’s nighttime routine before they were diagnosed and try and include the things they used to do.

Avoid difficult topics too late in the day, instead, engage in chilled-out activities such as watching their favourite television programme or sharing happy memories.

A relaxing bath can also help prepare the body for rest. Aromatherapy oils such as lavender and chamomile can promote sleep and the scents may even be useful memory tools.