Difficulty sleeping is common in people with dementia. It is not clear why dementia-related sleep issues occur, but there are steps you can take to help your loved one get a better night’s sleep.
Dementia is a change in how the brain works. Since sleep and sleep cycles are largely controlled by the brain it is reasonable to assume that these changes in the brain can affect sleep as well. Sleep is also strongly impacted by the environment and mood. Your loved one may be more affected by changes in the brain, in their environment, or both. Understanding what is affecting their sleep may help you find the best solutions for them.
Some people with dementia have an increase in restlessness or agitation that begins late in the day. This is known as “sundowning” and it tends to worsen as the dementia progresses. This state of distress can make it much more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Factors that can worsen sleep problems and sundowning include:
Waking up disoriented can lead to wandering which stops a good night’s sleep and can lead to safety problems.
A regular sleep routine will help cues your body to settle down for the night. Routines can also be comforting to people who have dementia and avoid surprises that may be distressing. To develop a sleep routine:
Safety steps for those that wander in the night include:
Agitation can be common problems in those with dementia. Work with the medical team to find ways to help reduce agitation. Options include behavioral interventions, hobby activities, music, massage, or aromatherapy. It may take trial and error to find which works best for you.
If you are caring for a loved one with dementia, you should also make sure that you are getting enough sleep yourself. Ask for help from family members and friends if possible. Talk to your loved ones doctor and elder care specialists to see what services may be available to help you out.
While medications may be prescribed to treat existing conditions, they are not usually prescribed to treat sleep disturbances in those with dementia. Sleep medications can increase disorientation and increase the risk of accidents, such as falls.
If you or a loved one is having dementia-related sleep issues, talk to a doctor to help find treatment options. The doctor may also run some checks to make sure there aren’t other medical issues causing sleep problems.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Public Health Agency of Canada
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Sleep and nighttime disturbances. Alzheimer’s Association website. Available at: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/info/20064/symptoms/107/sleep_and_night-time_disturbance. Accessed June 19, 2017.
Sleep issues and sundowning. Alzheimer’s Association website. Available at: http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-sleep-issues-sundowning.asp. Accessed June 19, 2017.
Treatments for sleep changes. Alzheimer’s Association website. Available at: http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10429.asp. Accessed June 19, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods MD, FAAP