I averaged four hours of sleep per night during the five years my husband and I cared for my mom with Alzheimer’s in our home. On an average night you could find Mom and me watching reruns of The Lucy Show as we huddled together in blankets on the couch.
Like 50% of people with Alzheimer’s, Mom experienced significant changes in her sleeping/waking patterns. She dozed often during the day and was often awake and agitated during the night, walking through the house and begging to “go home.”
Like other people with dementia, Mom did not respond to over-the-counter sleep medications, which only increased her confusion. Like a mother with a newborn child, I learned to sleep lightly, waking at the slightest sound. No matter how exhausted I might be, something inside me refused to fully rest, knowing Mom might be stirring.
So what can caregivers do?
- Recognize you can’t do it all and get support—from a spouse, a relative, a caregiving group, or another knowledgeable caregiver who knows what you’re experiencing.
- Avoid or minimize upsetting activities in the late afternoon or evening (for instance, have your loved one bathe in the morning).
- As much as possible, create a set routine and ritual before bed that includes soothing physical sensations, such as massage, music, or hair brushing.
- Clear a well-lit path to the bathroom, and practice using that path during the day.
- Use more light in the early evening and dim the lights at night to signal bedtime.
- Check with your doctor about medications that might be physically stimulating and could be switched to morning dosing, and ask for recommendations about prescription sleep aids for those with dementia.
- Allow your loved one to sleep on a couch or recliner if they’re more comfortable there. Move their bed against a wall if they’re at risk of falling.
- Put special locks on doors to keep your loved one from wandering outside or falling downstairs.
- Purchase a baby monitor so you can hear when your loved one is moving about in another part of the house.
Recognize that those with Alzheimer’s begin sleeping more in the end stages of the illness. Discuss their sleeping patterns with their doctor and discuss recommendations they may have for this phase of the disease.
As you consider your need for rest, consider some of the following options:
- Find a location outside your home where you go to can rest on a regular schedule. For instance, ask a friend if you can nap at their home on Thursday afternoons while your loved one is in adult daycare.
- Ask a friend to come to your home and watch your loved one for a specified period of time while you nap in your room.
- Schedule “islands” of rest in places that feed your soul: a funky coffee shop, the library, a nearby park.
So what about you? Share your top suggestions with us here. We’d love to hear from you.