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Insomnia In The Elderly

The prevalence of insomnia tends to increase with age in seniors, affecting both their physical and mental well-being. In many of our blog posts, we’ve explained the numerous links between sleep and health conditions associated with aging, including dementia, cardiovascular problems, cognitive decline, and much more. “Sleep”, in this case, does not refer just to the amount of sleep one gets, but the quality of sleep, its patterns, and its consistency too. Frequently interrupted sleep as well as difficulty falling and/or staying asleep can all be factors in Insomnia. Understanding the causes, treatment options, and preventive measures is crucial for those caring for elderly parents or loved ones.


Causes of Insomnia in Older Adults:


Insomnia in aging individuals can be attributed to a myriad of factors, both common and less well-known. While changes in sleep architecture are typical, medications, stress, mental health disorders, pain levels, and one’s environment can also play a significant role in disrupting sleep patterns. It's essential to recognize that medical conditions, such as arthritis or prostate issues, can contribute to sleep disturbances in older adults. Additionally, less conventional causes, including psychiatric disorders like depression or anxiety, and environmental factors like noise or an uncomfortable sleep environment, can exacerbate insomnia.


Treatment Strategies:


Addressing insomnia requires a comprehensive and individualized approach. The following is a checklist of steps we recommend you follow to make sure you’re covering all your bases for getting quality sleep without jumping into using medications:


1.     Set a consistent sleep schedule. Most older adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, keeping in mind that this number will change based on a person’s health, activity level, and even their sex (with women needing slightly a bit more sleep). Based on this information and your wake-up time, figure out what time you need to be asleep each night in order to consistently get your needed number of hours. Be sure to stick to this schedule, factoring in some wiggle room for unwinding and getting ready for bed, even if you find it difficult to fall asleep for the first couple of weeks. Especially for people who do not normally adhere to a certain sleep schedule, there can be an uncomfortable adjustment period before forming this habit.

2.     Create an enjoyable wind-down routine. Once you’ve decided on a sleeping schedule, make it easier to stick to by creating a simple night routine that you can grow to associate with bedtime. This will include no screen time, meaning no phones, no TV, no laptops, and no tablets. Dim the lights, change into comfortable PJs, drink some caffeine-free tea, and read a physical book, meditate, do breathing and muscle relaxation exercises (look up an online tutorial beforehand!), or do a skin-care routine. Make sure you give yourself enough time to be in bed with the lights off 15 minutes before it’s time to be asleep.

3.     Control light and noise factors. If you live with other people with different bedtimes, find a way to limit light and noise in your bedroom. This can involve insulating the crack in the door, using a white noise machine, or wearing a sleeping mask and earbuds.

4.     Make the conscious decision to stop thinking about things that bring stress at bedtime. This is a difficult habit to break and can, at first, feel like it’s outside your control. It takes practice! If something is weighing on you significantly, whether it’s a current difficult situation or past traumas, consider talking to a therapist, and schedule 15 minutes of meditation time or tea time during the day in lieu of making bedtime your only time to be alone with your thoughts.

5.     Talk to a professional about non-pharmacological intervention. For example, melatonin and magnesium supplements as well as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) have proven effective in addressing underlying causes without relying on medications. In some cases, medications may be prescribed, but their use should be carefully monitored due to potential side effects, especially in older adults who take other medications.


Preventive Measures:


Preventing insomnia involves adopting healthy sleep habits early on. Regular exercise has been linked to improved sleep quality in older adults. Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, particularly in the hours leading up to bedtime, can contribute to better sleep. Establishing a relaxing bedtime routine can signal to the body that it's time to wind down. Monitoring and managing medications, addressing underlying health issues promptly, and maintaining a comfortable sleep environment can collectively contribute to better sleep hygiene. If you work with a Geriatric Care Manager (like Senior Steps!), they can get in touch with your healthcare providers and other specialists to learn about side effects from your medications and whether doses can be modified to prevent undue tiredness or sleeplessness (as well as other unwanted effects where possible).


Health Implications:


We discuss these issues in much more detail on other blog posts on The short version is this:


Chronic insomnia can have far-reaching health implications for older adults. It's associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Insomnia can compromise the immune system, making seniors more susceptible to illnesses. Additionally, it can affect cognitive function and contribute to an elevated risk of falls and accidents, emphasizing the critical need to recognize and address insomnia early on.


The impact of insomnia extends beyond physical health, affecting mental well-being as well. Older adults experiencing sleep disturbances may be more prone to irritability, mood swings, and cognitive decline. Family caregivers should be attuned to changes in sleep patterns and collaborate with healthcare professionals to address underlying issues effectively. By prioritizing sleep health, caregivers contribute not only to the overall quality of life for seniors but also to a more positive and sustainable caregiving experience.


Understanding the multifaceted nature of insomnia in aging individuals allows caregivers to approach the issue proactively. By incorporating a holistic approach to sleep health, caregivers can make a significant difference in the well-being of their elderly loved ones.


If you need help with navigating a matter pertaining to aging, including your (or an aging loved one’s) overall health, dealing with insurance companies, deciding on a place for living, going through the checklist of legal matters to figure out, or coordinating elderly care from out of town or on a busy schedule, contact us for a FREE consultation to see if we can provide some guidance or take some caregiving tasks off your plate. Go to to learn more or fill out the form at to get in touch.



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