Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, but it is really common in people who look after someone with dementia. Lack of sleep is bad for the person with dementia. But if you are caring for someone with dementia it can be the last straw when, after a long day of caring, you are woken up again and again at night. Exhaustion can make it impossible to go out to work, or to perform properly when you are working. It affects your mood and relationships and can lead to other physical ill health.
So what can we do to help people with dementia and their carers get a decent night’s sleep?
- Everyone has a body clock, but it is controlled by a hormone (melatonin) that is reduced in old age and even further in Alzheimer's Disease. However, it can be stimulated by exposure to daylight, particularly in the morning, so getting outside is really important during the day.
- Exercise is the best way of making someone tired and ensuring a good healthy sleep. It may be hard to get out walking but there are exercises you can do even from your chair. Daytime naps can be important for people with dementia who get extremely tired as a result of their condition, but if they are napping just out of boredom, it is more likely that they are going to be sleepless later. Try to get as much activity as possible in the daytime.
- Bedtime routines are vital for all of us. Winding down and doing things that are recognisable clues that bed time has come helps people who don’t feel tired recognise that it is time for bed. Put away daytime things. In some care homes now, staff at night wear dressing gowns so that when people with dementia wake up, they are encouraged to realise that it is night time. Otherwise with bright lights and daytime clothes residents might feel it is time to get up, even at midnight. Pay attention to the temperature. A nice warm bed in a cooler room makes it more likely that someone will stay under the covers, even if they are awake.
- Make sure that the person with dementia has taken all the pain relief that is available for aches and pains. They many not remember themselves to do that, and the pain will wake them up in the night, waking the carer up as well. Also check with the doctor whether a small alcoholic drink is permitted (taking into account what medication the person is on, and that alcohol has more effect on older people). A glass of sherry or a small stout might be just the thing for winding down to bedtime.