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Do Seniors with Alzheimer's Suffer from Sleep Disturbances?

by Matt Kudish, Alzheimer's & Dementia Expert
May 03, 2013

Question: My grandmother who stays with me has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has trouble sleeping. Is this common for those suffering from the illness?

Answer: Sleep disturbances—such as increased frequency and duration of awakenings in the night, decreased dreaming and nondreaming stages of sleep, as well as daytime napping—are common symptoms of dementia.  Scientists do not, however, completely understand why.

Before any interventions—drug or non-drug—are tried, it is important that your grandmother be professionally assessed for medical or psychiatric causes for the sleep disturbance.

After a doctor has ruled out medical or psychiatric issues, consider the following tips to enhance your grandmother’s ability to get a good night sleep.

 If she wakes during the night, approach her in a calm manner and find out if there is something she needs.  Gently remind her of the time and reassure her that everything is all right and everyone is safe.   Be sure you avoid arguing or asking for explanations.  And of course make sure the home is safe in order to avoid nighttime injuries.

The majority of people with dementia will wander and get lost at some point.  Preventing wandering can be a real challenge because no one knows exactly who will wander or when wandering might begin.  Enroll your grandmother in MedicAlert® + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return® (MASR) before any wandering incidents occur.  You can find information about MASR by visiting www.alznyc.org/safereturn.

 To try and improve your grandmother’s sleep, consider the following suggestions:

•    Maintain regular times for going to bed and waking up.

•    Establish a comfortable, secure sleeping environment—reduce noise or other stimuli, make sure bedding and room temperature is comfortable, provide nightlights and/or security objects.

•    Discourage staying in bed while awake; use the bedroom only for sleep.

•    Avoid excessive evening fluid intake and empty bladder before going to bed.

•    Avoid daytime naps if the person is having trouble sleeping at night.

•    Treat any pain symptoms.

•    Engage in regular daily exercise, but no later than four hours before bedtime.

It is imperative that you consult a physician to discuss any sleep-inducing medications.

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Matt Kudish, LMSW, is Vice President, Director of Education, Outreach and Caregiver Services at the Alzheimer’s Association, New York City Chapter. In this role, Matt oversees the Chapter’s 24-hour Helpline and Care Consultation programs, as well as comprehensive education and training initiatives throughout the five boroughs.

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