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5 Tips to Improve Sleep in Dementia

For better rest at night, use 5 tips to improve sleep in dementia

Dementia causes changes in the brain that can worsen sleep. Someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can experience frequent waking, troubled sleep, or being awake at night. To help them (and you) get better rest at night, gerontologist Julia Larimer shares 5 tips that improve sleep in dementia.

Dementia worsens sleep and poor sleep worsens dementia

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, nearly 7 out of 10 people with dementia experience sleep issues.

It’s a vicious cycle: dementia worsens sleep and poor sleep worsens dementia. 

Thankfully, scientific research has shown several ways to mitigate this harmful cycle.


Signs that someone with dementia has trouble sleeping

Unless you’re sharing a bed with the person or have a monitor like a FitBit to track sleep, it might be hard to tell if your loved one has trouble sleeping. 

Waking up three or more times during the night is one example of poor sleep. 

Troubled sleep can also mean waiting more than an hour to fall asleep or more than 30 minutes to fall back asleep.

If you can’t monitor their sleep at night, look for these symptoms: aggression, excessive daytime sleeping, increased confusion or trouble finding the right words, falling out of bed at night, or the obvious – they’re awake and active during the night.

So what can we do to help promote a better night’s sleep? By preparing for it all day.

Here we share five evidence-based tips.

1. Consider the lighting

Our minds depend on natural light to help maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Help your loved one experience light during the daytime and darkness at night. 

Using a light therapy lamp in the mornings is a good habit to develop since we can’t always count on sunny days.

Then in the evening, be sure the curtains or blinds are closed to help cue your loved one that it will soon be time to sleep.

2. Be active and exercise for at least 30 minutes per day

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends exercising at least 4 hours before bedtime.

Researchers found that daily habits of using a light therapy lamp and walking helped people with dementia to sleep 32% more during the night. Not only that, they also woke up an average of 5 less times during the night.

So walk, lift weights or canned goods, do some seated exercises, or work on some chores together. 

Staying active will help your loved one to be tired by bedtime.


3. Make sure their physical needs are met before going to bed

Have they gone to the bathroom? Brushed their teeth? Is the temperature comfortable? 

Are their pajamas comfortable? Or – and this might be uncomfortable for you to think about – maybe they prefer to not wear pajamas to bed at all.

Go with their preferences and routine. 

The whole focus is to make sure they are comfortable and in the “ready for bed” mindset when they actually go to bed and don’t feel the need to get up during the night.

4. Play relaxing sounds before and during bedtime

Listening to music has been shown to increase deep sleep and REM stages, which restore energy, relax the muscles, and lower blood pressure.

Don’t stress about trying to find the perfect soothing sound for your loved one; just focus on something low and slow without lyrics. 

It could be music, nature sounds, or just static white noise. 

While some people like listening to audiobooks, podcasts, or even the TV as they fall asleep, for many people with dementia, listening to someone’s voice (especially at night in the dark) could be energizing, distracting, or even scary.

5. Use aromatherapy and hand rubs

Research shows that breathing in certain essential oils like lavender, sweet orange, and cedarwood help people with dementia to have longer, uninterrupted periods of sleep throughout the night. 

You can disperse the oils using a diffuser, by putting a few drops on a towel draped over the pillow at bedtime, or even using an aromatherapy lotion.

Hand rubs, especially using aromatherapy, have been shown to help people with dementia to relax and wake up fewer times during the night. 

When your loved one sleeps better, you will sleep better too.

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Guest contributor: Julia Larimer, LNHA, ADC is a gerontologist and founder of (note: website no longer exists). Alz Well helps people with dementia and their families to Celebrate More Good Days through an evidence-based Sleep Kit and Caregiver Guide.

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