For Caregivers: How to Have Your Best Nights—So You Can Put In Your Best Days

For caregivers who spend their days looking after a loved one suffering from serious illness or injury, nights can feel long and lonely.

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If you are one of the more than 40 million family caregivers in the U.S. today, there’s a good chance you are not getting enough sleep. You might be getting up several times a night to help your loved one get to the bathroom safely, or, just as taxing, lying awake worried that he’s going to get up any minute. Or maybe you find yourself bolting upright with a sudden concern about a new symptom or a medication refill. It’s all in a night’s often unrestful work.

This is Sleep Awareness Week, and with all that’s going on in the world these days, no one needs to remember the importance of sleep—and practice its lost art—more than family caregivers. The challenge and unrelenting nature of caregiving can really take its toll on sleep, making it hard to get through the day—let alone attend to the care of another person. Sleep deprivation can also put you at greater risk for depression, weight gain, and other mental and physical health stressors. The prospect of a sound night’s sleep can seem particularly distant for Alzheimer’s caregivers: A recent study by the University at Buffalo Nursing School found that 9 in 10 people caring for a loved one with dementia experience poor sleep.  

Home healthcare nurses and aides at Partners in Care, an affiliate of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, where I work, know what’s at stake when a family caregiver’s sleep is disrupted, and they have considerable experience helping caregivers—and those they care for—sleep better at night. Here are a few reminders from some of the most respected authorities on healthful sleep practices that we hope will help your loved one get through the night (which will also guide you in the same mission as well):

Create Bedroom Best Practices—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping the room darkened, comfortably cool and, to avoid falls, free of hazards such as throw rugs and clutter, especially along pathways. Adequate safety lighting is important, too, including nightlights or LED strips under cabinets or on the floor, and lining hallways and doorways. Experts widely recommend avoiding screens before bedtime.

Address Frequent Urination—First, see if there’s a medical problem that can be addressed. But for some, such as people with diabetes and on certain kinds of medications, frequent urination is a daily—and nightly—reality. The Cleveland Clinic recommends restricting the intake of fluids in the evening and timing diuretics no later than six hours before bedtime. Adult diapers and waterproof mattress pads can buy you peace of mind.

Manage Pain—Pain can keep a loved one—or a caregiver—up at night. Talk to the doctor about the right kind of pain management, including over-the-counter medication. As with all medicines, make sure to take (or give) pain meds at the appropriate time of day.

Create a Plan for Managing Alzheimer’s Disease—People with dementia often have trouble sleeping. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends a number of non-medicine coping strategies (which are useful for anyone), including:

  • Maintaining a regular schedule for meals, sleeping and waking
  • Getting regular exercise, but no later in the day than four hours before bedtime
  • Minimizing alcohol, caffeine and nicotine
  • Provide nightlights

Caregiver Self-Care

The cardinal rule of caregiving—make sure you attend to yourself—holds just as true at night, and here are some strategies:

Write it Down (then forget about it until morning)—Shortly before bed, make a list of your concerns—as well as actionable steps you can take to address them…tomorrow. That’s when you can actually talk to the nurse, or refill a prescription, and, with a concrete strategy for what to do, you might be able to get some sleep tonight.

Exercise—Physical activity has been proven to help people fall and stay asleep at night (don’t exercise too close to bedtime, though). It also does wonders for your mindset during the day, and for your overall physical health and fitness.

Practice Relaxation Exercises—There are a number of non-medicine sleep aids that caregivers find helpful. AARP suggests guided imagery (using positive mental images), deep breathing, soothing music, or a light program of stretching before bed.

Grab a Catnap—If sleep eludes you at night, a short nap in the day can help restore mental and physical wellbeing. Take care to limit your naps to 20 minutes or less, to avoid having more trouble sleeping at night—and perpetuating the cycle of sleeplessness.

An Irish proverb holds that a good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures for much of what ails us in life. With all the challenges a caregiver faces, I certainly hope that you will have a good laugh today. And by also keeping in mind these nighttime strategies, I believe that you will find your way to a long—or at least longer and more restful—sleep tonight.

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