Finding Sweet Dreams in Elderhood

In early 2016, I wrote a pair of blog posts about the need for healthy sleep in gifted elders. Just like gifted children and adolescents, gifted adults and elders can experience frequent difficulty both falling asleep or sustaining sleep through the night. Gifted elders may experience other difficulties as well, due to cognitive changes in elderhood or for other reasons.

In this blog, part of the Hoagies Blog Hop “Sweet Dreams,” I would like to review some of my past findings as well as offer suggestions to elders and their caretakers for enhancing the quality of sleep. Additionally,  I invite my readers to post effective techniques that they find enhance their sleep habits as well.

Sundowner’s, or sundowning, is a syndrome which manifests itself in many individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-related diseases. Changes in light at the end of the day may produce behaviors such as agitation and restlessness, anxiety, fear, or anger. Similarly, adults, and elder adults in particular, may present with sleep difficulties. Research demonstrates that seven of ten older adults have sleep disturbances or sleep disorders. Due to the intensities of giftedness, I believe that the statistic is higher with gifted elders due to their intensities.

As with sundowning, light and how our brains process light is often connected to problems falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. Receiving different types of light at different times during the day or evening can support or disrupt the circadian rhythms that control our sleep drive. Circadian rhythms are necessary for promoting healthy sleep-wake cycles.

When the natural rhythms are upset, we have trouble initiating, maintaining, and waking from sleep. Certain cells in the retina are most responsive to bluish-white light. This is the form of light that suppresses the production of melatonin. Lower levels of melatonin promote  wakefulness. With the onset of the dark at nighttime, melatonin production increases and we are more sleepy.

Researchers at the Light and Health Center of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a light table that emits bluish-white light (i.e., daytime type) and they investigated its use in residential care facilities for the elderly. Residents gathered around the light table at meals and could sit around the table anytime between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. After use of the table over time, caregivers recorded a 10% increase in sleep efficiency  among residents who used it. Sleep efficiency is a calculation that represents the ratio of time in bed to time spent sleeping. The less time we take falling asleep and the more time we stay asleep, the better our sleep efficiency.

In addition to sleep efficiency, elders who regularly used light tables displayed a substantial decrease in depressive symptoms and agitation. Thus, it is important that our elders receive as much natural daylight as possible during the day, especially in the winter months. In addition, it is vital that at night we begin to eliminate unhealthy sources of light for two or more hours before bedtime.

Fibromyalgia is a disorder that is marked by fatigue and sleep issues. As an individual who has learned to manage fibromyalgia for four decades, I have developed what I term “sleep rituals” to help alleviate the sleep problems that are inherent with the disorder. The following are some of the techniques and rituals that I have found are helpful for falling asleep and enhancing beneficial, sound sleep.

  • Reduce screen time in front of television and electronics in the evenings for at least two hours before bedtime. These devices emit bluish-white light, which promote wakefulness rather than sleepiness.
  • Dim the lights at night a few hours before turning in for the night. This produces a calm, soothing environment for the gifted elder.
  • If the older adult needs some light when getting up during the night, use a soft nightlight placed at a strategic spot to assist in navigating the dark. Some residential facilities now use softly lighted door frames, rather than bright hallway lights. Soft lights guide residents safely without encouraging wakefulness.
  • Find an activity helps the gifted elder wind down at the end of the day. It may be reading with a small reading light, sketching, knitting, doing a jigsaw or word puzzle that is not overly challenging, or listening to relaxing music. Any type of quiet activity that can be developed into a nighttime ritual will serve as a trigger, telling one that it is time for the mind and body to prepare for sleep.
  • Sounds from Nature – ocean waves, rain, ripples from a stream – are relaxing and useful as sleep aids. One of the treasured gifts from a son who understands my sleep difficulties is a sleep sound machine that generates these and other natural sounds.
  • Some find aromatherapy helpful. Lavender, chamomile, bergamot, and sandalwood are some scents that come to mind. A few drops of one of these essential oils on a cotton ball placed near one’s pillow may be beneficial.
  • Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, or guided imagery may be useful in falling asleep. I have a number of scenarios of favorite places that I have visited – a restful beach, camping in the mountains,  and others, that I use as guided imagery visualizations to relax and prepare me for sleep.
  • Sleep experts tell us to try to go to sleep and to awaken at the same time every day. This sets up our natural circadian rhythm. Also, if a nap is needed during the day, limit it to a fifteen minute or so power nap in the early afternoon. 
  • Exercise during the day is important, but it also vital that we exercise early enough during the day to allow our bodies to cool down from exercise into a more sleep receptive state. A good friend and colleague, one of the most gifted individuals I know, is a runner. He found as he started to age that he had to switch the time of his afternoon  runs to earlier in the day in order not to interfere with his sleep at night.

These are just a few of the sleep techniques I have found that work for me and for others. What are some strategies that promote your healthy sleep?

Sleep tight!

Photo: Riku Lu, Dream Dandelion on Flickr, 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page February 2018 Blog Hop on Sweet Dreams. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page for their inspiration, support, and suggestions over the last two decades. You can see blogs of others here.

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