Expert Strategies for Navigating Sleep Challenges With Alzheimer's Disease

Managing Sleep Problems With Alzheimer’s Disease


Sleep problems are quite common in individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. Psychological factors, such as changes in mood, behavior, and cognition, or environmental factors that are too stimulating can disrupt normal sleep patterns and make it challenging for individuals to relax and rest peacefully.

Changes in the brain disrupt the circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Certain medications prescribed to manage the symptoms of dementia can also have side effects that interfere with sleep, causing drowsiness during the day and increasing the risk of night-time awakenings. Additionally, exposure to light and noise or even untreated pain can cause discomfort, exacerbating night-time restlessness.

This article explores the most common sleep problems in individuals with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and what you can do to help.

Common Sleep Problems in Individuals With Dementia

Understanding and addressing the most common sleep problems experienced by individuals with dementia can help you improve the overall well-being of your senior loved one.

  • Excessive sleepiness during the day. Disruptions to the sleep-wake cycle may lead to frequent napping during the day, which can prevent individuals from getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Insomnia. This condition is characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, leading to prolonged periods of wakefulness during the night.
  • Frequent awakenings during the night. Individuals living with dementia may wake up quite often throughout the night, often due to factors such as discomfort, pain, or environmental disturbances.
  • Premature morning awakenings. Due to changes in the brain and circadian rhythm, individuals with dementia may often wake up earlier than desired or before sunrise.
  • Sundowning. This is a common dementia-related phenomenon where a person becomes more agitated, confused, or restless in the late afternoon or early evening, often around sunset.

Tips to Support a Good Night’s Sleep for Your Loved One With Dementia

Helping your senior loved one with dementia sleep better requires patience, compassion, and understanding of their individual needs and challenges. Here are some strategies to consider to improve their sleep patterns and overall quality of life.

Soak up the Sun

Sunlight exposure helps regulate the body’s internal clock (known as the circadian rhythm) which influences the sleep-wake cycle, hormone production, and other physiological processes, promoting better sleep at night and overall well-being.

In addition, natural light has been shown to have mood-enhancing effects, promoting feelings of well-being and reducing common dementia symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and behavioral disturbances.

Adequate exposure to natural light during the day can enhance the quality of sleep for individuals with dementia, reducing the risk of insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and other sleep problems.

Check for Underlying Medical Conditions

Sleep disturbances can often be a symptom of various underlying medical conditions, such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, urinary tract infections, or pain from conditions like arthritis.

Untreated medical conditions can further lead to complications and exacerbate sleep disturbances. For example, untreated sleep apnea increases the risk of cardiovascular problems, while untreated pain can lead to chronic discomfort. Identifying and addressing the root causes can help alleviate sleep problems and improve the overall well-being of your senior loved one with dementia.

Establish a Consistent Bedtime Routine

When faced with unfamiliar or unpredictable situations, your loved one with dementia may experience anxiety or confusion. A consistent bedtime routine creates a sense of predictability and familiarity and promotes feelings of comfort and security. Any disruptions to this routine can trigger behavioral disturbances, such as restlessness or wandering.

Calming activities and rituals before bedtime, such as gentle stretching, reading, listening to soft music, or relaxation exercises, can help regulate your loved one’s sleep-wake cycle. A calming bedtime routine can signal to the body that it’s time to wind down, allowing for a more restful and predictable sleep.

Encourage Physical Activity

Regular exercise helps reduce stress and promote relaxation, making it easier for your loved one with dementia to fall asleep and stay asleep. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters and reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, contributing to a calmer state conducive to sleep. It can help expend energy, reduce restlessness, and promote feelings of tiredness, making it easier to settle down and sleep at night.

Some examples of exercises that are well-suited for your loved one with dementia include walking, yoga, or gardening. Even a short stroll in the park or a gardening activity can provide opportunities for gentle physical activity and sensory stimulation.

Limit Daytime Naps

Long or frequent naps during the day can lead to increased daytime sleepiness, interfere with the ability to fall asleep at night, and even lead to night-time awakenings. Sundowning, characterized by increased agitation, confusion, or behavioral disturbances in the late afternoon or early evening, can also be exacerbated by long or late-day naps.

Limiting naps to one a day for less than an hour helps ensure that people with dementia are more likely to feel sleepy at bedtime and wake up feeling rested in the morning. It also prevents them from becoming overly drowsy during the day and promotes better alertness.

Your loved one will be encouraged to remain active and engaged in meaningful activities and social interactions, which is important for maintaining cognitive function, physical health, and emotional well-being.

Create a Pleasant Sleeping Environment

A well-designed sleeping environment ensures that your loved one with dementia feels comfortable and secure during the night.

This may involve using supportive bedding and mattresses, arranging furniture to minimize obstacles and hazards, and ensuring adequate lighting and visibility to prevent falls or accidents during night-time awakenings. Soft lighting, soothing colors, and calming decor can help create a serene atmosphere that encourages relaxation and promotes feelings of comfort and security.

Additionally, minimizing exposure to bright light, excessive noise, and electronic screens before bedtime can contribute to more comforting surroundings, allowing them to better synchronize their sleep-wake cycles.

At Arbor Trace, a dementia care facility in Ontario, Canada, we understand the unique challenges faced by individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, especially when it comes to sleep disturbances. Our dedicated staff is well-versed in recognizing and addressing these issues, helping your senior loved one maintain a good night’s sleep.

Contact us today to schedule a tour of the Arbor Trace memory care community and see how we can support your loved one’s sleep.

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