Insomnia: The Caregiver’s Role

Steven Mott by Steven Mott | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 09/19/2017

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According to the American Psychological Association, almost half of all older adults suffer from insomnia. Whether insomnia manifests as trouble falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep through the night, the health effects are the same. According to the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), insomnia can lead to poor memory and concentration, depression, and chronic health problems and has been associated with heart disease and hypertension.

If you are a caregiver for someone with insomnia, this article will help you understand what causes insomnia and recommended insomnia treatment for older adults, and what you can do at home to help your loved one get better sleep.

What causes insomnia?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), if your loved one takes more than 30 to 45 minutes to fall asleep, wakes up several times during the night, wakes early and is unable to fall back asleep, or wakes in the morning feeling tired, he or she likely suffers from insomnia. The NIH lists several causes for insomnia in aging adults:

  • A need to go to the bathroom, perhaps due to prostate enlargement in men or incontinence problems in women.
  • Issues associated with menopause.
  • Arthritis pain.
  • Heart or lung disease.
  • Neurological diseases such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
  • Medication side effects.

In addition to these medical-related insomnia causes, older adults also have personal habits that may contribute to poor sleep. For example, older adults may nap during the day, get less exercise, and drink more caffeine than other adults.

What are insomnia treatment options?

The NIH recommends lifestyle changes that you, as a caregiver, can help your loved one accomplish as a first option for insomnia treatment. Specifically:

  • Discourage the use of substances that can make insomniaworse, such as caffeine and alcohol. Check any over-the-counter and prescription medication side effects to see if they may contribute to insomnia. If your loved one takes prescription drugs that cause insomnia, talk to your doctor about dosing times or alternative treatments.
  • Adjust night-time habits to make it easier for your loved one to fall asleep. Relaxing, quiet activities such as reading a book or soaking in the bathtub may help your loved one fall asleep more easily.
  • Make sure your loved one’s room is set up to encourage a good night’s sleep. Black-out curtains, adequate ventilation and a quiet location may help him or her fall asleep—and stay asleep.
  • Develop a regular sleep cycle. Encourage your loved one to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up the same time each morning.

If insomnia treatment at home isn’t working, you may also consider a type of counseling known as cognitive behavioral therapy, according to NIH, which uses relaxation exercises and biofeedback to help your loved one sleep better.

Are medications appropriate for insomnia treatment?

There are several different types of prescription drugs that your doctor may use for insomnia treatment. Some are for short-term use only, while others can be used for long-term insomnia treatment according to NIH. Prescription drugs to treat insomnia could include benzodiazepines, melatonin, and valerian, according to the AHRQ.

Be sure to tell your health-care provider about any other prescription or over-the-counter medications your loved one is taking if you seek prescription drug insomnia treatment, and follow the instructions on the label carefully to avoid any adverse effects.

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