Caregivers Can Help Dementia Patients Get Better Sleep with a Bedtime Routine

This week we are happy to share with you a guest blog post from the Tuck Sleep Foundation.

The elderly often suffer from more sleep disturbances than their younger counterparts, but those with dementia struggle from sleep loss even more than average. Those with dementia are far more likely to experience daytime sleepiness, wandering during the night, confusion, and sun-downing (a growing agitation as the sun sets). A bedtime routine can help decrease confusion and agitation, so it’s easier to fall asleep. A routine can also help regulate the circadian rhythms, which tend to fluctuate with age.

Normal changes in the body due to aging increase the chances of sleep disturbances. Circadian rhythms, those biological cycles everyone repeats on a daily basis, largely control the sleep-wake cycle. Those rhythms rely heavily on the eyes absorbing natural light and sending the appropriate signals to the brain to trigger the release of sleep-inducing hormones.

As the eyes age, they become less sensitive to light, which means they can’t send the right signals. Consequently, the sleep-wake cycle may get altered in the elderly. Dementia, which affects the brain, causes these sleep problems even more. People with dementia also experience less REM sleep, more instances of sleep apnea, chronic snoring, insomnia, and other sleep disorders. These disturbances lead to sleep deprivation and stress for both the elderly person and his or her caregivers.

Along with disturbances during the night, falling asleep can be a challenge for those with dementia. Sundowning and night wakings are frequent, can be frightening, and lead to added stress. Developing a good bedtime routine can help calm confusion and fear to set the stage for a higher quantity and quality of sleep.

The Right Setting
Dementia often leaves the elderly frightened and confused in the dim lighting of the evening. The bedroom should be kept clutter free with plenty of nightlights in case of night waking. A comfortable sleep environment with a supportive mattress topper and a cozy pillow can help cut down on waking due to aches and pains. If the elderly person has mobility issues, you might want to consider a low-profile bed or frame with rails to prevent falls and give support during the night.

Consistent Bedtime Routine
Start the bedtime routine at the same time every day. Predictability helps establish the circadian rhythms and calm the mind while cutting down on confusion. As you develop a routine, find calming activities like a warm bath, warm cup of milk, or reading to trigger the sleep-wake cycle. Perform the activities in the same order each night. As you progress through the routine, the brain recognizes the routine and can better release hormones at the appropriate time.

Develop Other Sleep-Promoting Habits
Stimulants like the caffeine found in coffee and soda can keep the mind buzzing long after bedtime. These types of drinks should be avoided for at least four hours prior to the start of the bedtime routine. Alcohol, which can make you feel sleepy at first, often causes disturbances in the middle of the sleep cycle and should be avoided. Try to eat a light, healthy dinner early in the evening to prevent discomfort that may lead to sleeplessness.

Alicia Sanchez is a researcher for the sleep science hub with a specialty in health and wellness. A Nashville native, Alicia finds the sound of summer storms so soothing that she still sleeps with recorded rain on her white noise machine.

For more information on Elder Law Planning and Support, please contact the attorneys at Zacharia Brown. You may schedule an appointment by visiting our website at or by calling 724.942.6200.



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