For many family caregivers, sleep doesn't come easily at the end of a tiring day. Worrying might keep some from falling asleep. Others might reach Slumberland the moment their head hits the pillow, only to be awakened during the night to help a care recipient who has fallen or needs to go to the bathroom. Alzheimer's patients, who sometimes get their days and nights confused, are often awake and restless during the night, keeping the caregiver up with noises they make, says Ruth Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer's Association.
“There are lots of ways that a caregiver's sleep can be interrupted by the person that they're caring for," Drew says. “And of course, when you are under stress and exhausted, sometimes you may keep yourself up. Sometimes people are dealing with insomnia and other issues that interrupt their sleep, due to the strain of caregiving."
Sleep deprivation is a common complaint among caregivers, and the result could be more damaging to their health than merely making them feel tired and cranky. Poor sleep has been linked to increased risks for obesity, hypertension and diabetes, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That's because insufficient sleep can suppress the secretion of a growth hormone that helps control weight gain, disrupt the decline in blood pressure that normally occurs during the sleep cycle, and weaken the body's ability to use insulin. A study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that severe sleep triggers the immune system into action in a similar way as physical stress.
These research findings mirror much of what Drew has observed in her work with family caregivers. “Without sleep, we all break down pretty quickly," she says.
If you're having trouble sleeping, or you're waking up feeling tired even though you think you sleep long enough, these tips may help you to get more restful sleep.
Call in some relief. If you're sharing caregiving responsibilities for Mom or Dad with other siblings who live nearby, consider taking turns with night duty. As an alternative, maybe a close friend or one of your adult children would be willing to fill in. If there's no one in your inner circle to call on, you might look into hiring a home healthcare assistant who can stay overnight at least occasionally, Drew suggests. Or maybe you can catch some naps during the day while Mom or Dad goes to an adult daycare center.
Help the patient get to sleep. Alzheimer's patients are especially susceptible to sleep problems. The loss of brain tissue that causes mental impairment can also interfere with their sleep/wake cycles, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Many of them also display a condition known as “sundowning," a tendency to become especially agitated during the evenings.
“One thing we'll recommend to caregivers if the person with Alzheimer's is up at night is to have a more active schedule during the day, so that the person is naturally tired at night and sleeps better," Drew says.
Try a digital aid for dozing. There are lots of tech gadgets on the market to help you get to sleep--and know how much sleep you're getting. Personal sleep tracking devices include wearable trackers, smartphone apps and in-bed monitors. Sleep therapy apps and devices range from machines that play white noise, ocean waves and other soothing sounds to lull you to sleep, to those continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines used to treat sleep apnea.
Take a sleep test. If your sleep problem becomes severe, it might be time to consider professional therapy at a sleep center, where you'll probably undergo diagnostic tests using a polysomnogram. A mass of wires attached to various parts of your body will be able to simultaneously monitor your eye movement, heart rate, muscle tension , breathing and sound (that is, how much you snore).
However you decide to tackle your sleep deprivation, the important thing is to take it seriously. Better sleep equals better health.
Want more ways to tackle caregiver stress? Read our post on dealing with caregiver burnout.