People with dementia don’t usually sleep well – around 40 per cent suffer from sleep deprivation. This is mainly because dementia causes changes in the brain that can make it harder to understand whether it’s night or day. Dementia can also cause disorientation after dreaming, which can result in the person you love feeling even more confused and restless when they wake up. In other words, their sleep problems aren’t their fault.
But if they don’t sleep…neither do you
Unfortunately, someone with dementia is unlikely to simply read quietly in bed if they can’t sleep. They may cry out or get upset, especially if they’re incontinent and wake up with a wet bed. Or they may get up and start pottering around because they think it’s daytime. Worst of all, they may trip or fall in the dark and hurt themselves…all of which means you will soon be wide awake yourself, cajoling them back to bed, changing their bed linen or even calling an ambulance.
Your loved one’s dementia might not be the only reason you’re wide awake…
1 – You can’t switch off: Your loved one might surprise you by sleeping through the whole night…Trouble is, you’ve now had so many broken nights that you just can’t seem to settle, knowing they might wake up at any moment. So you find yourself wide awake, permanently ‘on call’ while they sleep peacefully.
2 – You aren’t taking care of yourself: You’ve followed all the advice about helping your loved one to get a good night’s sleep. You help them to relax in the evening and make sure their bedroom is comfortable. You’ve also made sure they’ve eaten properly throughout the day, watched their caffeine intake and limited late-night drinks. Unfortunately, all of this has taken a lot of time, leaving you with no time to unwind yourself, or to even eat a decent meal. Now it’s 2am and you’re really hungry…
3 – You can’t stop worrying: Some worries seem to strike at night, particularly around 3am when you might find yourself jolted from sleep by worry. These so called ‘night dreads’ are common amongst people leading stressful lives and who are coping with the many demands on their time. In other words, people like you.
4 – You don’t live with them: Caring from a distance can seriously impact your sleep too. Maybe your loved one has started phoning you late at night, or even during the night, because they’ve forgotten what the time is. Maybe you get calls from neighbours, carers and friends who are worried. Or perhaps you just can’t stop worrying that they’re safe and find yourself tossing and turning all night.
How to help yourself sleep better:
Change your mind
Sleep deprivation affects your mood, health, immune system and ability to concentrate, which, in turn, is bound to impact on your ability to care for a person with dementia. Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. So start considering your own needs for downtime and relaxation before bed. Remember, taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s sensible.
Take a nap
If you still aren’t getting enough sleep, a daytime nap could really help. Sleep experts say an afternoon nap, taken at around 3pm, can improve your thinking and memory skills, providing it lasts no more than 30 minutes. (Napping for too long can make it even harder to sleep at night).
Schedule in some worry time
This might sound bizarre, but sleep experts recommend you regularly set aside 20 minutes before bed (around 8pm) to do some serious worrying. Write down everything you can think of that could possibly worry you, including all the ‘What if…’ scenarios. The more you do this, the less need you’ll have to keep ruminating when you could be sleeping. Our caregivers journal could be just the place to start doing this.
Talk to someone who’s been there
Many, many family carers suffer sleepless nights and broken sleep. There’s nothing like an honest chat with someone who really does know exactly how you’re feeling to lighten the load. They might not be able to offer any advice you haven’t heard before, but they will be able to sympathise and reassure you that you aren’t alone, and sometimes that’s enough to make you feel a bit better. You could also join The Unforgettable Dementia Support Group for support from others who are going through a similar experience.
Whether it’s from family, friends or professionals, it’s really important that you stop trying to soldier on and manage on your own. If you’ve already tried to get help and failed, try again. If your sleep problems persist, make sure you see your GP and/or contact Social Services and ask for a carers assessment (even if you’ve had one before).