How Seniors Can Improve Their Sleep & Battle Insomnia

A restful night's sleep is vital as we get older, but many seniors struggle with sleeplessness and insomnia. Here we explore 3 game-changing ideas that we hope will lead you to sweeter dreams.
Older female struggles with insomnia while resting in her bed

You knew sleep would get harder as you age, but you didn't expect a pattern of bad nights to develop, where struggling to get to sleep and stay asleep is the new norm. And while you've tried a plethora of sleep aids, they've offered little or no relief. In fact, some of them have made your insomnia worse. Before you give up hope of any semblance of slumber, you might try changing how you think about sleep during the senior years.

Experts agree a renewed mindset about sleep and aging may be just what you need to relieve your frustration and drift back into a tranquil nighttime routine. Here are three game-changing ideas to consider:

Shift Your Focus to Rest

Chronic sleeplessness has been linked to fatigue, depression, and cognitive decline in older adults, but it can also give rise to a fear of insomnia. Worrying about not sleeping on top of not sleeping is the last thing you want to do. Here's a thought: stop focusing on sleep and start concentrating on rest. Rest may not be as ideal as sleep, but it's a good second choice, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Not only that, rest is easy to do, plus it's a great way to restore and refresh your body and mind when sleep doesn't come. It can also lead to better sleep.

What constitutes rest? Engaging in leisurely activities that calm and rejuvenate. Mindfulness meditation has many benefits for seniors, from preserving brain function to reducing loneliness to promoting relaxation and sleep. Mindfulness is simple to learn at any stage of life and can be done anywhere and anytime, even during the night when you can't sleep.

If meditation isn't your thing, there are many other restful activities to try that appeal to older adults, like yoga, reading, journaling, or gardening. The important thing is to find an activity that helps you relax without any pressure. Lying peacefully with your eyes closed or engaging in deep, diaphragmatic breathing may be all you need to bring profound, refreshing rest--and potentially sleep.

A senior man sits on his bed unable to sleep at night

Be Mindful of Sleep Remedies

Sleep is big business today, which means there are many sleep remedies out there vying for your attention and wallet. But take your time and be cautious when exploring options. Start with simple, practical fixes that are safe and don't cost anything, like making changes to your bedtime routine. Darken the bedroom, set the temperature at 60 to 67 degrees, take a warm bath, avoid evening exercise, turn off electronics early on, and sip herbal tea.

If improved sleep hygiene doesn't do the trick, you might turn to natural supplements to help induce shuteye. Melatonin is often prescribed for older adults with insomnia problems and early dementia. Some say taking melatonin regularly can inhibit your body's natural ability to produce melatonin; however, research shows that melatonin in low doses can be safe and effective for seniors. Other supplements for sleep include magnesium, vitamin B, valerian, and passionflower. Do your research and always consult a doctor before starting supplements.

Finally, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has a proven track record for helping people of all ages sleep, and it's drug-free. Cognitive behavioral therapy uses mind strategies to help you overcome unhealthy sleep behaviors. It can be especially helpful for those who develop a fear of sleeplessness by changing how you think about sleep. The downside of CBT? It can be costly and takes time and patience to learn.

Avoid sleep medications if possible. They may cause physical or psychological dependency as well as harmful side effects, particularly for senior adults who use other prescription drugs that could interact with sleeping pills. Refrain from alcohol, too. If you are going to drink, limit consumption to one or two drinks at least three hours before bedtime so it doesn't interfere with your body's natural ability to sleep.

An older woman sleeps happily in her comfortable bed

Be Realistic about Sleep and Aging

Keep in mind that as people age, the ability to sleep typically wanes. Changes in sleep patterns, including spending more time in lighter sleep stages, along with age-related health issues and medications are mostly to blame. While it's a common problem--the National Sleep Foundation estimates that nearly half of people over 60 experience symptoms of insomnia a few days a week--take comfort in knowing that many older adults share it.

Don't be hard on yourself if you can't sleep. Instead, adopt a realistic attitude about sleep and aging and talk with your doctor for help, guidance, and reassurance. Then do what you can to improve sleep and let nature take care of the rest. Your body will eventually get what it needs. Forcing sleep can backfire and make insomnia worse. You might redirect your thoughts and energy toward the things you can control to ensure health in the senior years, like getting adequate exercise, eating nutritious foods, and eliminating stress.

Assistance Club Summary

Sleep can be challenging for older adults but worrying about it and over treating it won't help. What can help is concentrating on rest, being mindful of sleep remedies, and understanding the reality of sleep and aging. By rethinking sleep, you'll lift the burden it's become and give yourself the tools you need to relax, recharge, and enjoy better nights.