Sleep and dementia: 13 tips for a better night’s sleep

Does the person you care for struggle to get a decent night’s sleep? Find out how to help someone with dementia sleep longer and feel more rested.

Many people living with dementia have trouble getting to sleep, or wake up often during the night. Whilst it’s true that older people generally need less sleep than they used to, this doesn’t mean that they – or you – have to suffer endless nights of broken sleep.

Here’s 13 ways to encourage the person you care for to sleep.


Daytime

Achieving good sleep means planning ahead and making sure that your daytime routine includes stimulating activity and also a nap if necessary.

1. Get outside twice a day. Dementia can disturb the body clock which is why some people with dementia get day and night mixed up, but outdoor light in the morning and early evening can help to regulate the body clock. Bodyclock wake-up lights are a useful way to help determine between day and night. Try combine lighting with a little exercise, too, such as a walk in the park, as physical tiredness tends to promote better sleep in most people.

2. If they need a nap, make it before lunch not after. A daytime nap isn’t necessarily wrong, many older people like to nap and without one they may become over tired, irritable and unable to sleep at night. However, try to make sure their nap happens sooner in the day (before 1 pm) rather than in the afternoon.

3. Watch what they’re drinking. It’s very important that people with dementia drink plenty of fluids throughout the day (dehydration can cause more confusion and illnesses such as urinary tract infections) but try to limit tea and coffee after around 5pm as too much caffeine could keep them wide awake at night. A naturally caffeine free tea could be a good alternative, if the person you are caring for likes to drink a cup of tea in the evening. However, generally speaking, aim to give most of their daily fluid intake during the day and early evening, not in the couple of hours leading up to bed, as this can make trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night far more likely.


Evening

This is when you can start to focus on rest and relaxation. The calmer a person with dementia is feeling in the evening, the better chance they have of sleeping well.

4. Lighten the mood with music or feel-good TV. A favourite comedy show or CD is a great way to help them relax and boost their mood. Avoid discussing anything which might be potentially upsetting or difficult at this time, too. Focus on good memories and positive conversation.

5. Run a bath. This is the perfect time to suggest a relaxing soak in the bath. If they’re agreeable, try adding a, few drops of aromatherapy essential oils (lavender and camomile are very relaxing).

6. A massage is a great way to unwind before bed. Offer to pamper them with a shoulder massage, or a hand and foot massage. Or gently apply some soothing oil to their temples, pulse points or under the nose to aid in sleep or help induce relaxation.. Don’t underestimate the power of human touch, it can be extremely soothing and comforting.


Bedtime

It’s important that the bedroom is a comfortable, safe and pleasant environment. Find out how to make the bedroom more dementia-friendly here.

7. Spend a little time thinking about how they used to prepare themselves for bed before they were diagnosed with dementia. Most people have roughly the same bedtime routine for many years, so what was theirs? For example, did they always drink a cup of hot chocolate and listen to radio 4 in bed? Or read a thriller? Try to replicate this routine as far as possible now. The more familiar it feels the better, particularly if they’re no longer living in their own home, as a routine they recognise can help a person with dementia feel secure.

8. Get the basics right; are the curtains heavy enough to stop light getting in? If not, could you add black out lining to them – or some blackout blinds? Is the temperature okay? If it’s too hot or cold the person you’re caring for won’t be very comfortable and is likely to keep waking up.

9. Put daytime clothes out of sight – if they can see them they might think it’s time to get up –and cover up mirrors. People with dementia are sometimes unable to recognise their own reflection.

10. Pay attention to their bedside table. For example, if it contains a clock, a familiar photograph or favourite ornament, and a night light or lamp, then it will help the person you’re caring for to feel safer and less confused if they wake during the night.


During the night

If, despite everything you’ve done, they still keep waking at night, try not to feel despondent. Remember, this is a common symptom of dementia – around 40 per cent of people will suffer sleep disruption.

11. Take a look at some of the possible causes of night time waking and wandering here. Perhaps medication or other health issues are playing a part? A useful aid to help with night time walking is a day clock that clearly spells out what time of the day it is, and helps the person with dementia orient themselves in the middle of the night.

12. Focus on increasing their comfort during the many hours they may spend awake at night. For example, leave a photograph album or picture book next to a bedside lamp.

13. Consider ways to minimise potential safety risks. For example, would a bed monitor or stairgate at the top of the stairs stop you from worrying about them having a nasty accident? If you can’t stop them wandering at night, you can at least make sure they’re safe and that you can get some much needed sleep yourself.