Resources for Family Caregivers of Older Adults
Sleep Evading Senior Loved Ones? 10 Sleeping Pill Alternatives

Sleep Evading Senior Loved Ones? 10 Sleeping Pill Alternatives

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Is your senior senior loved one unsuccessfully chasing sleep?

Many seniors have experienced trouble sleeping in their lifetimes and likely more often as they age, when sleep pattern changes are a normal occurrence.

Seniors have been shown in studies to not sleep as deeply, to have periods of time when their sleep is disturbed or often sleep during waking hours therefore not at night. Restful sleep goes through specific cycles and seniors need to achieve all cycles to maintain physical and mental health.

Many older adults (like their younger counterparts) turn to medications to help them fall asleep and stay asleep. Unfortunately, in our elders, sleep aids often cause side effects that are detrimental to their overall health.

Medications often prescribed by doctors to reduce anxiety and help sleep patterns are in a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines. These drugs slow down the central nervous system. Oftentimes, at the insistence of sleeping seniors, these medications are prescribed more often and in higher doses than are considered safe for elders.

Sleeping pills are not intended to be used for more than seven to ten days but many of our senior loved ones have been taking them nightly for many years, often refusing to give them up. Doctors stress pills should not be used as a ‘crutch’ to fall asleep.

Potential Side Effects of Sleeping Pills for Seniors

  • Confusion and lack of concentration in the middle of the night and the morning
  • Dizziness, lack of coordination and grogginess
  • Irritability, depression and changes in heart rate
  • Forgetfulness, anxiety and depression
  • Headaches, constipation or nausea

Which Can Lead to Outcomes Such As

  • Increased risk of falling and sustaining a fracture or other injury
  • Errors in medication administration
  • Poor safety awareness
  • Inability to sleep, even with the medications
  • Weakness, illness and hospitalization
  • It has been reported that some seniors have started home fires when they were in a fog after taking sleeping pills
  • Other reported unsafe behaviors include sleepwalking and sleep driving

Side effects of sleep aids occur most often in seniors whose bodies are more sensitive to the medications because the drugs remain in their system longer. Drug interactions can occur and alcohol consumption will increase the effects of sleeping pills. Be sure your senior loved one’s doctors are aware of other medications and over the counter pills being taken to prevent interactions and unintended side effects.

Alternatives to Sleeping Pills for Seniors

  1. Keep your senior love one’s bedroom comfortable and free from distractions; use room darkening curtains, run an overhead fan to keep the air moving, keep the temperature comfortable, remove any annoying sounds such as tree limbs hitting the windows and get a comfortable mattress – it might be time for a new one.
  2. If your senior is having trouble falling to sleep, don’t let them lie in bed “chasing sleep.” Encourage them to get up and do something until tired.
  3. Don’t forget the old standby – warm milk. A glass can help your senior’s body calm down naturally enough to sleep.
  4. Unwind before it is time for bed. Take a warm bath using lavender soap/oil, read, or listen to soothing music; make a routine and stick with it so that your senior’s body prepares itself before getting into bed.
  5. Tire out fully each day by staying physically active and seek fresh air and sunshine. However, it is not a good idea to participate in exercise before bed because this could have the opposite effect and keep your senior awake.
  6. Have a scheduled sleep and wake up time to again allow your senior’s own internal clock to react.
  7. Eliminate sleeping during the day; fight the feeling to catch a cat nap because it could keep your senior from deep sleep at night. If your senior is bored, find something to do instead of sleeping.
  8. Caffeine should be avoided in the evening.
  9. Avoid alcohol, smoking, large meals and spicy food late in the day.  These can all stimulate your senior’s body and keep him or her awake.
  10. To reduce sleep disturbances related to frequent bathroom trips, avoid drinking fluids two hours before bedtime unless necessary to take nighttime medications.

Dr. William Dement, director of the sleep disorders clinic at Stanford University, said there is no medical justification for the chronic use of sleeping pills. He said that he usually prescribes them for “one to two nights, and rarely more than 10 nights.”

Other physicians agree that use of sleeping pills should be with caution. “The reason the elderly take more sleeping pills is that they don’t sleep well,” said Dr. Westbrook. “They tend to lose very deep sleep, their sleep is more fragmented, and they have a lot more arousals during the night.” Despite the widespread use of sleeping pills by the elderly, Dr. Folstein said, “it’s extraordinarily rare to find an old person who actually requires them.”

You and your senior loved one may want to carefully discuss with your doctor the options available if sleeping is problematic. There may be medical reasons for having trouble sleeping such as restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, or insomnia that should be addressed and may be masked with sleeping pills. A good night’s sleep can payoff in many ways with improved health and wellness.

Do you have any tips for ways to get a good night’s sleep? We would love to hear your ideas!

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