Sleeping Problems

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

We look forward to week-ends and holidays, not always for that big vacation in the dreamland.   Often, its the joy of getting up late or to sleeping in as long as we desire.  In the same way, for years and years of our working life, we look forward to retirement.  Retirement stands for freedom, freedom to go to bed anytime and get up any time we want to.  Oh what a golden period that is, when you don't have to follow any external requirements, rules, or regulations; at last you are "routine free."  

Like it or not, sleep follows its own laws which have no consideration or respect for man-made systems, whether that is a short week-end or the big retirement.  The fact is, sleep illudes us when we have all the time in the world to sleep.  We progressively sleep less as we age.  When we reach the seventies and eighties, our dream-sleep is drastically reduced and deep-sleep is almost gone.  

Sleep-laboratory studies point out that an 80-year old takes 18 minutes to fall asleep, has dream sleep for about an hour.  With only a few minutes, if any, in the deep sleep stage, total time of sleep is reduced to about six hours.  note that about 85% of the sleep-time is spent in light sleep.  Elderly people wake up many times in the night and stay awake for long hours.  When my father was in his nineties, he hardly slept in the night.  Whenever I woke up in the night, I saw him either sitting quietly, praying, or groping for some personal article under his pillow and mattress.  

Compare this with the sleep pattern of a 20-year old.  This young person takes about 8 minutes to fall asleep, spends only 5% of the sleep time in light sleep, dream-sleeps about two hours, deep-sleep for three hours --total sleep time about eight hours. That quality of sleep is only a "dream" for the elderly.

No sleeping pill can provide a long-term solution to the problem of sleeplessness.  Moreover, sleeping pills can make a problem callled "sleep apnea" worse.  Sleep apnea is a condition that is often present in the elderly which causes the breathing to stop for brief periods during the night.  Older people on sleeping pills may wake up confused in the middle of the night and may fall and hurt themselves as a result of that.  Certain types of sleeping pills may complicate problems of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other medical conditions that are typical of old age. 

In the case of long-term medication for chronic sleeplessness, a low-dose antidepressant may be more suitable than sleeping pills in some cases.  Those who take sleeping pills over two weeks, should discuss with their doctor if they can skip taking sleeping pills for a night or two.  Elderly persons on sleeping medication should monitor themselves for any daytime "fogginess" "cloudiness" or "hangover" feeling.  Many doctors are of the opinion that sleeping pills should not be used for more than a month.  

Here are a few self-help suggestions to get some relief from sleeping troubles:  

1.  Follow a regular routine.  Set a specific time for waking, eating, and exercise, and then follow it consistently.  

2.  Resist the urge to nap during the day.  If you must take a nap, limit it to a maximum of 30 minutes.  Longer naps during the day make it harder to sleep in the night.

3.  Do something relaxing prior to going to bed such as, soaking in a warm tub, back massage, listening to soft music, etc.

4.  Stay out of bed until you are ready to sleep, but get up in the morning at the usual fixed hour.  Don't go to bed too early.  Let your body determine when it's time to sleep.  This way, you will probably wake up less often in the night and the quality of sleep might be better.  

5.  Limit your bedtime to about seven hours.  Staying in bed for longer hours compromises the quality of sleep.  In the morning, when you get up at the usual hour but don't feel like doing anything, go sit in the porch.  Listen to the radio or do anything, but stay out of that bed. 

6.  Exercise in the day is important for a good night's sleep and for general health.  Light exercise promotes the feeling of general well-being and helps one to stay active.  Exercises to strengthen muscles are being touted these days as means to reverse the process of aging.  A gym specifically designed for the elderly has a slogan, "Flex your muscles and take years off you."  

7.  Eating light nutritious meals and cutting down on nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, are  helpful for better sleep.  

8.  What one does in the day determines what kind of night one has.  Stay mentally and physically active in the day, have some social activities and other activities you enjoy, and the night is likely to be more pleasant.                                                

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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