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Overcoming the Insomnia Epidemic in Older Adults

We’ve all endured a long, sleepless night of tossing and turning, only to wake up feeling more tired in the morning than the night before. This inevitably frustrating problem can cause even the healthiest people to feel its effects. The body repairs its cells and immune system during sleep—and if it doesn’t have the chance to do this properly each night, your body loses out.

Overcoming InsomniaWe’ve all endured a long, sleepless night of tossing and turning, only to wake up feeling more tired in the morning than the night before. This inevitably frustrating problem can cause even the healthiest people to feel its effects. The body repairs its cells and immune system during sleep—and if it doesn’t have the chance to do this properly each night, your body loses out.
Some older adults, however, find themselves struggling with more than just a lost night of sleep. In fact, research suggests that insomnia affects almost 50% of older adults over the age of 60. Suffering from sleepless nights can increase your aging loved one’s risk of illness and disease, in addition to causing more minor symptoms like irritability and fatigue during the day. Thankfully, most sleeping problems can be remedied when you figure out what’s causing them in the first place.

Signs That Your Loved One Might Suffer from Insomnia

Older adults tend to get more sleep than younger people overall, but their sleep patterns shift in other, less satisfying ways. They’re also more likely to wake up during the night and to sleep less deeply. These changes happen naturally as the aging body produces less melatonin and growth hormones—but it’s important to recognize the difference between natural changes and a condition like insomnia. Caregivers can look for these common warning signs that indicate their aging loved one is suffering from insomnia:

  • Trouble falling asleep over a prolonged period of time
  • Unable to fall back asleep if they wake during the night
  • Dependent on sleeping pills, alcohol, or other drugs to fall asleep
  • Frequent complaints about never feeling rested or alert
  • Unable to focus or they struggle with memory
  • Excessive naps, even if they avoid strenuous activities
  • Weight gain, overeating, or other poor eating habits
  • Irritability, depression, or are unusually quick tempered
  • Declining health without an obvious cause

Causes of Insomnia in Older Adults

Among the many factors associated with insomnia, there are some causes that are common to older adults in particular, including:

  • Medication that causes sleep disruption
  • An emotionally stressful situation (i.e. family conflict, financial problems, or relocation
  • The loss of a loved one
  • Poor eating habits
  • Too little exercise or physical activity
  • Long-term illness (for example, diabetes, cancer, or dementia)
  • Clinical depression, anxiety, or chronic stress
  • Chronic pain (from an injury, or a disease like osteoporosis and arthritis)
  • Not socializing enough
  • Insufficient amount of sunlight
  • Sleep disorder or sleep apnea

In addition to causing unpleasant symptoms like irritability and weight gain, not getting enough sleep can also lead to more serious consequences like illness and disease.

Ways to Treat Insomnia and Other Sleep Issues

If you think your aging loved one might be suffering from insomnia, the good news is that there are many ways to help them sleep better.

Get Healthy

Some cases of insomnia can be greatly improved by simply developing healthier eating habits and exercising more.

Consume healthy food and drink

  • Encourage your loved one to eat nutritious foods.
  • Limit caffeine and sugar intake, especially in the evening.
  • Drink around 8 glasses of water per day.

Exercise regularly

  • Researchers at Northwestern University found that exercise improved older adults’ quality of sleep more than any other lifestyle change.
  • Utilize exercise to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Establish a fitness schedule 4 days per week.
  • Don’t exercise close to nighttime.

Create Structure

Having a stable routine for both the daytime and nighttime can help prepare your loved one for a great night’s sleep.  

Daytime routine

  • Wake up at the same time each day.
  • Limit naps to 20 minutes and once per day (if at all).
  • Eat meals at a similar time each day.

Nighttime routine

  • Stop eating big meals a few hours before bed, although having a small nighttime snack is fine.
  • Similarly, limit liquid intake in the evening.
  • Listen to soft calming music, an audiobook, or read a book.
  • If stressed, light journaling before sleeping may be relaxing.
  • Stay away from the computer and television.
  • If your loved one wakes up during the night, suggest they read a book or listen to an audiobook for a bit instead of trying to go right back to sleep.
  • Focus on relaxing rather than falling asleep.

Emotionally De-Stress

Feeling emotionally stressed can easily cause sleep problems. You can help by encouraging your loved one to explore the root of what’s bothering them.

See a therapist

  • If your loved one has gone through an emotional challenge, like losing a loved one, therapy can help them work through it.
  • Family conflicts are sometimes best solved with outside help.
  • Therapists can also help treat depression, anxiety, and stress.

Socialize with people

  • Spending time with others can help your loved one to feel naturally tired.
  • Talking with friends and family might help them to share their emotional stresses and relax more.

Seek Expert Help

If you think your loved one’s insomnia is caused by something that can’t be solved on your own, it’s time to see a doctor.

Discuss with doctor

  • Side effects of prescribed medications need to be considered and addressed.
  • See if your loved one can switch drugs, or if the doctor has another solution.
  • If your loved one has chronic pain or a serious illness, consult with the doctor about how to improve their sleep while still addressing other pressing medical concerns.
  • Find out if a sleep disorder is causing the problem by scheduling a blood test or making an appointment at a sleep clinic.

Whether your loved one’s insomnia is caused by a lack of exercise, chronic pain, illness, or emotional stress, battling sleep problems can be understandably frustrating. That’s why it’s so reassuring to know that there are numerous ways for caregivers to support their aging loved one during this challenging time. It’s also helpful to note that while most older adults are thought to need somewhere between 7.5 and 9 hours, a better gauge is however many hours your loved one needs to wake up feeling truly rested.
So remember that there’s no need for your loved one to tolerate restless nights and fatigued days any longer: by making a few changes to their nightly routine, exercising more, seeking medical help, or exploring emotional stresses, they can come out on the other side of insomnia feeling rested and refreshed. Helping your loved one get quality sleep on a regular basis is one of the best things you can do to ensure their quality of life.
If you’re unsure how to better support your aging loved one, Institute on Aging provides a variety of resources, programs, and services to help. Get in touch today to learn more.

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