Sleep problems in later life

Going to the toilet in the night

A lot of the people we talked to about their poor sleep said that one of the main reasons they slept badly was because they woke up to go to the toilet in the night. For some people it was only once a night, and not every night, but others reported having to get up several times in the night on most nights of the week. This, naturally, left them feeling very tired during the day. Although some people knew that needing to go to the toilet was waking them up, others weren’t always clear why they had woken up, but decided to go to the toilet anyway. There was a feeling that if they went to the toilet when they woke up that this would mean they wouldn’t have to get up again in the night.
Many of those who woke up to go to the toilet then couldn’t get back to sleep, the main reason being that they started to think about problems and worries that they had, or sometimes it was just thinking about what they had to do the next day. Some of the worries people talked about were simply whether they may need to get up and go to the toilet again that same night, which they knew would leave them very tired the next day.
People gave several reasons for why they might need to get up so often in the night to go to the toilet. One explanation was that it was just a natural part of getting older, and men in particular blamed their frequent visits to the toilet on prostate problems, which are more common in older men. Whilst some men had been diagnosed with prostate problems, a few believed this was the cause of their visits to the toilet, whether it had been diagnosed by a doctor or not. Some of the men had received treatment for their prostate problems which helped reduce the number of trips to the toilet in the night. Although Otto found it made no difference at all, despite going back for further treatment.
Other illnesses, such as diabetes, affected people’s need to go to the toilet frequently during the night. Ronald had been advised to drink more water to help his gout, which in turn was increasing the number of times he needed to get up during the night.
 
Although several of the people we spoke to lived on their own, some lived with partners or wives. Anne explained how both she and her husband often got up to go to the toilet in the night. They also both woke up immediately when either one of them got out of bed, and she felt that this prevented them both from sleeping deeply. Part of Robert’s role in caring for his terminally ill wife at home was helping her to go to the toilet during the night.
People had several strategies for getting back to sleep in the middle of the night and one of them was actually going to the toilet. This was to help them feel more comfortable and they believed it would reassure them that they wouldn’t need to get up again. Sue B. said she goes to the toilet several times before she goes to bed to try and prevent her having to get up in the night and this does, on the whole, seem to work for her.
Others tried restricting the amount of drinks they had during late afternoon and evening. The time they stopped drinking varied from between 4.30 pm or within an hour or so of going to bed. Sometimes people told us they were aware that what they drink affects if or how frequently they go to the toilet, but still continue to drink. At one point Otto stopped drinking anything after 4.30 pm to avoid having to get up in the night, but then became concerned when he read somewhere that going without fluids made you feel weak. He started drinking more, but still won’t drink after 5.30 pm.
Nearly all of the people who complained of having to get up in the night said that a perfect night’s sleep would be one without the interruption of having to go to the toilet at all. Or for those who are used to going several times in the night, a perfect night’s sleep would be going just once. But overall, most people accepted this change to their sleep pattern because they saw it as a part of getting older, and felt that there was nothing they could do about it.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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