There are few things more closely associated with wellbeing than a good night’s sleep. It is something many of us take for granted until it is disturbed by the people or environment around us, or when those dreaded nights of insomnia strike and you lie in bed wishing more than anything that you were asleep.
Although some people can function well on very few hours of shut eye, most of us struggle through the day when we have not had the sleep we need. Sleep deprivation as a result of being a parent is well documented, and yet very little is said about the many carers who never get a good night’s sleep because they are looking after a loved one. For those who are caring for a relative with dementia, sleepless nights can become a feature of everyday life that lasts for many years, draining both the carer and the person with dementia physically and mentally.
From the night terrors, sweats and hallucinations that can often accompany the earlier stages of dementia, to the way in which the disease can eventually remove that vital understanding about daytime and night-time, dementia poses many challenges around sleeping for the person with it and those who are caring for them. As dementia progresses the person living with it may sleep more and more, and in the end-of-life stage constant sleeping is not unusual.
A classic sleeping pattern for people with dementia is napping in the daytime and then being wide awake in the evening. This was certainly true of my dad. Throughout much of his dementia his daily routine involved both a mid-morning nap (before lunchtime) and an extended afternoon nap between lunch and teatime. Come the evening, however, he was invariably wide awake and would remain so for many hours.
People with dementia will often nap for the same reasons that anyone else might, so it could be as a result of being very relaxed, becoming bored, or because the room they are in is very warm or sunny. It could be a side-effect of medication, or an indication that earlier activities have tired them out. Personally I always found it very calming to see my father having a peaceful forty winks. The only time I ever worried was when he developed a sudden pattern of excessive sleeping, which in his case was always a sign of an infection brewing.
Dad’s napping never really affected his ability to sleep at night, although over the years some of his GP’s still offered prescriptions for sleeping tablets like the pills were sweeties to be doled out to all residents. Dad had never been a person who went to bed particularly early (despite being a farmer who needed to be up at the crack of dawn) so we requested that the care home staff never put him to bed before 10pm. If he went to bed too early he would be very restless, moving himself around, making loud noises and appearing very distressed. He could easily sleep in his comfy chair earlier in the evening if he needed to, but mostly he would be bright eyed and listening to his music.
From a digestive point of view, it is also very important to monitor bedtimes in relation to eating times. Often as people get older their digestion slows down, and going to bed too early can cause indigestion, leading to pain and discomfort that the person with dementia may not be able to articulate. If that person also has a swallowing problem (dysphagia, which I wrote about here), it becomes even more important to be mindful of their bedtimes. With dysphagia it is vital that the person is kept upright whilst taking anything orally to prevent choking (in our experience a profiling bed was never as effective as a chair and cushions for support). In my dad’s case this advice also extended to a prolonged period after any food or drinks (usually at least 2 hours) to help prevent vomiting, and reduce the chances of aspirating any vomit (which could lead to pneumonia).
There is often a temptation in care homes to put people with dementia to bed early just because it may be more convenient for the running of the home. If a person has been used to going to bed early, or worked shifts, then of course their established sleeping pattern should be respected, but if someone has always gone to bed later, making them revert to early bedtimes, the like of which they may not have experienced since they were a child, is totally unacceptable unless the person themselves wants to change their routine.
The exception of course is when illness strikes, which will naturally change sleeping patterns immensely. During those times bed is often the best place to rest and recuperate, although in my father’s case he had to feel extremely poorly before he would sleep peacefully in his bed without becoming agitated. Sleeping upright in his chair is something that dad had done prior to his dementia when he was chesty, and he retained that ability to sleep restfully in his chair during the numerous chest infections that he had when he was living with dementia.
In dementia’s shifting landscape, sleeping patterns may well come in phases, and they often require huge patience in order to cope with them. Helping someone with dementia to sleep, particularly at night, is about understanding their preferred times and places to sleep, the things that help them get to sleep or the triggers that keep them awake. Do that, and when they are finally catching those z’s, my best advice would be to catch some yourself.
Until next time…