“Nana, can I go to sweep now? I wanna go to sweep.” Shocked, because she was just about to jump back into the pool where she and her older brother were playing “Save the shark!” I checked my watch – it was just past 8:00 p.m. our time, 9:00 p.m. EST at the hotel where we were staying in Gatlinburg, TN. Phase 1 of my plan to wear them out was on track!
After a quick stop to have their picture taken with the grizzly bear in the lobby, we whizzed up the elevator and to the room. Grands dried off, and snuggled in the double bed next to ours, while I readied myself for bed, as well. When I turned the corner back into the room, I saw two wide-eyed kids, mouths agape, both pointing at their sleeping grandpa. When they saw me, still not making a sound, they pointed harder and leaned closer to the edge of the bed; my grandson finally whispers, “Nana, what’s that thing on Papa’s face?” I chuckled when I realized it was his CPAP machine that they’d probably never seen, and reassured him that it was a machine to help Papa sleep. Seemingly satisfied by my answer, they snuggled back down, occasionally darting side-eyes his direction just to make sure. Soon, they were knocked out, too. Phase 2 complete – everyone asleep – except me.
I didn’t fall asleep until close to daylight. I tossed and turned, – listened to the a/c unit kick on and off, the elevator ding, fantasized about hanging a towel on the smoke detector light, and putting black tape around all the edges of the room’s curtains. I regretted that big salad right before going to bed, too, and tried to remind my leg that it needed to let the rest of my body sleep!
I never needed naps, not even as a child. My mother tried, God bless her, but I was just one big ball of perpetual motion. My brother could fall asleep eating cereal, my husband, mid-sentence, (his own, not just mine!) My mother loves a good Sunday afternoon nap, but me … I was always the last to fall asleep at a sleep-over, and the last to wake up, but this all-night stuff is weird, even for me!
So what’s the deal? Turns out that our sleep patterns change as we age. Of course they do – everything seems to change as we age. It’s a myth that we need less sleep as we age. Older adults tend to go to bed earlier, and wake earlier, but we still need a full 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
What happens when we sleep – or don’t, as in my case. According to an article published by the National Institute on Aging, all of the parts of our brain work together to help us sleep. We have melatonin, which regulates our body’s circadian rhythms. These rhythms help our body maintain healthy sleep-wake cycles. We have two types of sleep – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep (deep sleep.) REM sleep is the state of sleep we are in when we dream. Both REM and non-REM help us to store memories. Because melatonin can decrease as we age, our cycles of sleep may be cut short and the amount of time spent in each type of sleep lessens. This is problematic because so much of our overall health is related to that timing – metabolism, immunity, appetite, and even cognition.
When I have restful sleep, I’m quicker, more able to focus, in a better mood, more patient, I can work on difficult projects and see them through – like figuring out why my internet isn’t working … again! It isn’t just the regular day-to-day that we handle better when we have enough sleep – poor sleep can impact our body’s overall health. For instance, lack of proper sleep has been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, even depression and Alzheimer’s.
There are a number of things that can prevent restful sleep, from stress, to chronic pain, to sleep apnea, where our breathing is paused for brief periods of time. Restless leg syndrome is another common problem, where you just feel like you have to move one or both legs to get them to settle down. Some folks say they start to drift off and a part of their body jumps or jerks waking them up; this is called periodic limb movement disorder. Others have told me they’d sleep better if they didn’t have to get up to go to the bathroom so often, or that they can’t fall asleep, (insomnia) or that they fall asleep, but can’t stay that way for whatever reason.
It’s miserable, but it’s not hopeless! The first thing you want to do is figure out what it is preventing you from getting quality sleep. Definitely talk with your doctor about your struggle, and also start keeping a log of your bedtime rituals, what you’ve eaten, and the times of day that you’re eating. It could be as simple as making sure you wake up and go to sleep the same times every day, or that you don’t eat a heavy meal close to bedtime. Maybe you need to add or increase your exercise routine. Just make sure you do it early enough – at least 3 hours before you plan to go to bed. If you absolutely need a nap, make sure to avoid taking one later in the evening. Some say soaking in a hot bath helps them relax at bedtime. Avoid caffeine later in the day, and believe it or not, alcohol. Even though alcohol may make you drowsy, you may find sleep may be short-lived, or restless. Eliminate all distractions from the bedroom – turn off electronic devices, yes, even the TV, reduce the lighting – if you’re like me and need total darkness and arctic-like temperatures, do it! Use whatever you can to tell your brain and your body that it’s time to sleep.
One last mention – unrestful sleep tends to make us get up and down throughout the night. This can be unsafe. Be sure to turn on a light before getting out of bed. Remove any obstacles in your path before going to bed, for example, throw rugs you may slide or trip on, shoes, pillows … you get the idea. Keep a phone by your bed in case you do have an emergency.
If you’ve tried everything and are still struggling, you could have more going on. Again, speak with your doctor and/or a sleep specialist to ensure there aren’t underlying health problems. You may need medication, supplements, sleeping devices, sometimes even surgical procedures to get you back on track. Your sleep matters as much to your health care professional as it does to you! Just because we’re aging doesn’t mean we’re supposed to feel tired and cranky. It makes for a great Muppet skit, but doesn’t do much for our overall health! OL