Dementia and sleep disruptions go together.
Up to 25 percent of people with mild or moderate dementia have difficulty sleeping, and the likelihood rises to 50 percent for those in the disease’s advanced stages, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with Lewy body dementia or Parkinson’s disease dementia are especially prone to sleep disorders.
For caregivers, the lack of sleep makes a difficult job even harder with everyone operating on a shorter fuse. The easy fix that comes to mind — sleeping pills — is a last resort, to be given to dementia patients only after exhausting all other options and sparingly even then.
“Anything we’re going to give for sleep could contribute to cognitive impairment,” says Helen C. Kales, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis Health. Sleeping pills exacerbate confusion, anxiety and depression in dementia patients, as well as common dementia behaviors, such as sundowning, agitation and even aggression.
Short of hiring a home health aide to take care of a loved one during the night, what can caregivers do to help someone with dementia sleep? Plenty, experts say, starting with this list.
1. Soak up the sun
Activity and daylight can help regulate sleep-wake cycles, which are thrown off-kilter in people with dementia.
“Older adults get only a fraction of the natural light they should be getting, but that light is really important for circadian rhythms,” Kales says. Morning light is best, but get outside whenever light is in abundance, even if it’s later in the day.
Research shows that 20 minutes a day of bright light reduces depression, a common problem with dementia patients that contributes to difficulty sleeping, says Monica Moreno, senior director of Care and Support at the Alzheimer’s Association. Even better, combine exposure to daylight with an activity, such as going for a walk. That way, “they’re exerting energy, and hopefully, it will make them more tired in the evening.”