Sleep problems in later life

Impact of bereavement and caring on sleep

Many people we spoke to had experienced the bereavement of someone close to them. Sometimes this was a sudden bereavement, and dealing with the aftermath of this often had a significant impact on sleep. People reported having great difficulty getting to sleep, as well as waking up a lot in the night with flashbacks of what had happened. Some people sought help from the doctor for this, and tried sleeping tablets for a period of time (see 'Going to the doctor or chemist'). Others coped as best they could without medication and hoped that their sleep would eventually return to normal.
In some instances people had been a carer for their family member for a period of time before they died, and this was particularly distressing for them. Very often this care meant being awake a lot in the night, perhaps talking to their loved one, or helping them to be comfortable, taking them to the toilet or nursing them in some other way. People talked about dealing with both the physical exhaustion of caring for someone at night, as well as the emotional and mental exhaustion of the effects of having someone close to them so ill.
If this kind of care continued for some time, it often set a pattern of sleep for the person left behind that was difficult for them to change. Robert explained how having to be constantly aware of his partner’s needs meant that he slept very lightly, and this carried on, even after she had died. Many people tried different ways to improve their sleep (see 'Strategies for good sleep'). Being responsible for looking after a close family member all the time is tiring and stressful, and Judy told us how she felt guilty when she could no longer continue to look after her brother who had dementia. The guilty feelings stayed with her when he was moved into a home and she continued to sleep badly.
People didn’t only find their sleep was disturbed by caring for people who lived with them. Their family member could be living elsewhere but in constant contact, even in the middle of the night. Peter explained how he and his wife had a stressful period in their life when both his mother-in-law and father-in-law were ill. They had to travel long distances on a regular basis to see them both until they died, and the strain of this affected their sleep. Several people talked about the difficulty of caring for elderly parents or relatives, and how this affected their sleep, usually at a time when they had other concerns and worries such as their own health and their own children’s problems
Several people we spoke to had jobs which involved them caring for others, such as working in care homes, running a care company or being a social worker, and they often talked of continuing that caring role at night. People who spent their working lives caring for others said it was very difficult to switch off from caring at night and often had trouble sleeping because they were still worried about the people they felt they were responsible for.
But caring didn’t only take the form of looking after someone who was unwell. Daphne, whose daughter had temporarily moved back home, had started getting up earlier than she would have liked to help her daughter get to work on time, and also noticed that she tended to go to bed later as well. She found that she was caring for her daughter’s needs and changing her sleep patterns to help with that.

Of those who talked to us about caring for their partners in the night, women most frequently talked of losing sleep because of either getting up to avoid disturbing their partners at night, listening out for their partners in the night, or checking on them regularly to make sure they were okay. Since her husband’s stroke five years ago, Anne’s sleep has been disturbed because she prefers to sleep in the same bed as her husband so that she can keep an eye on him during the night.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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