A-Z

Sleep problems in later life

Attitude to sleep

When we talked to people about their sleep, we asked them whether sleep was important to them or not. Some said sleep is very important and linked to other aspects of health and wellbeing, others only thought of it as being important if it didn’t happen, or if lack of it impacted on daily routines.
 
Those who felt sleep was very important often said it was as important as having a healthy diet. Many people were conscious of trying to eat healthily and also included making sure they had good sleep in their attitudes to a healthy lifestyle. Margaret believed that a good night’s sleep was the most important thing that we do in terms of healing, followed by eating. Robert called it ‘the battery.’ Good sleep was considered to be essential to psychological well-being, as well as physical well-being. Ronald said that ‘life would be very difficult without regular sleep’.

Those who thought sleep was important often said it was because they were aware of how well they felt when they had a good night’s sleep, and knew they would feel better if they regularly had a decent amount of sleep at night. Others were aware of the effect of not having enough sleep, and how it made them feel in the morning. Daniel, who considers sleep is important for health, believes that the quality of the sleep you have is more important than the amount of sleep.
 

Les believes sleep is as important as food, because not having sufficient sleep or food affects...

Les believes sleep is as important as food, because not having sufficient sleep or food affects...

Age at interview: 80
Sex: Male
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So I get an impression that you obviously value healthy eating and then are conscious of those links to diet and health?
 
I hate the word junk food. And I hate junk food. Won’t have it in the house. The only take away meal I will have is, I love fish and about, well, once every seven or eight weeks I will have fish and chips. Now she doesn’t like fish, so I have to get something different for her. But, no, I love fish so therefore I do have a take away I suppose you’d call it.
 
Yes, so food’s important. How do you feel sleep fits into health? Do you feel sleep is important?
 
I think it’s very important.
 
You do?
 
Hm.
 
In what way?
 
I put it on a par, sleep with food, because without food, without a proper type of food, you can still get, you soon get physically run down.
 
Yes.
 
The same thing happens if you don’t have the right amount of sleep, you could get physically run down. I am lucky it hasn’t happened that way to me. I get tired, yes. But … 
 
 

Audrey believes sleep is very important and would love to be able to go to bed and sleep well.

Audrey believes sleep is very important and would love to be able to go to bed and sleep well.

Age at interview: 79
Sex: Female
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So in looking at that healthy lifestyle and healthy eating do you think that sleep is important as well?
 
Yes. I think I feel I’d be, it’d be wonderful if I could have a say six hour, go to bed and know I was going to sleep … and then wake up, even quite early, but that would be lovely just to go to sleep because often I’ve been dying to go bed I’m so tired. I go to bed and I’ve tried a warm bath.
 
Milky drinks have you tried those?
 
No. No. I haven’t tried milky drinks. We do have milky drinks but not that often. Do we and it would be earlier on.
 
So sleeps important to you and a perfect night, well you’d be pleased to have six hours going to sleep straight away?
 
Oh yes.
 
What would be perfect? If I could say to you tonight you are going to have a perfect night’s sleep and I hope you do, what would that be?
 
Well if I could sleep from twelve till six that would be wonderful or even 11 to 5.  
 

Anne knows that if she doesn’t have enough sleep she is very grumpy in the morning.

Anne knows that if she doesn’t have enough sleep she is very grumpy in the morning.

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Female
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Sleep at the moment is a disappointment I suppose, because I feel I’ve improved my life style by doing all the things, diet, exercise and all this, and I’d hope that the sleep would improve more than it has.
 
So how important then is sleep to you?
 
It is, if you don’t want me to be bad tempered.
 
Is that the only reason?
 
I think so, yes. I’m quite a, I don’t like being unpleasant to people.
 
So it does have that much of an effect on you?
 
Oh yes, yes. I grump and groan!
 
And is that all day or …?
 
Oh only till about eleven.
 
Okay so that’s interesting. So have you got a recollection in the past of you being a morning or an evening person or neither of those?
 
I am definitely not a morning person.
 
Right. So the grumpiness is not only necessarily if you think about it being a shorter sleep?
 
Yes.
 
Have you always been grumpy in the morning?
 
No, no, I’ve not always been grumpy. I just like to be on my own when I wake up and if my routine is broken that’s annoying.  
Juliet, who has several health conditions, saw sleep as being important in terms of managing her overall health, and does what she can to ensure she has enough sleep. Peter felt that it was important to sleep at night, because it helped him to not sleep during the day, so that he could get on with what he needed to do.
 
However, some people had mixed feelings about sleep. Although they did acknowledge the importance of a good night’s sleep, they often felt sleeping was a waste of time, largely because they would much rather be doing other things instead. So although they understood that sleep was something that had to be done, they would potentially avoid it, or sleep less if they could get away with it. For these people, sleep was only important in terms of enabling them to do everything they needed to do during the day. As a consequence of this, they would only be concerned about their sleep if they weren’t able to complete their daily routines.
 

Mary believes sleep is important, but she also believes it is a waste of time and so its...

Mary believes sleep is important, but she also believes it is a waste of time and so its...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
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So thinking about you have this healthy attitude to food that is important in terms of health how does sleep fit in with your thoughts about health, or how does it if it does?
 
Not really, one doesn’t interfere with the other, you know.
 
And do you think sleep is important?
 
Oh yes. Very. Maybe I do need more sleep. I don’t seem to be able to. I couldn’t go to bed earlier. I have tried and tried.
 
Oh you have tried that?
 
Yes. I couldn’t go to bed at half past nine.
 
What made you try and go to bed early?
 
I have tried to do it, but I haven’t done it.
 
So it is not a case of getting into bed then before?
 
Maybe I think sleep’s a waste of time, you know, but I know how important it is.
 
But at the moment how do you feel about the level of sleep you’re getting?
 
I think it’s okay because I manage to go through the day fine. And but who knows whether next year and another year older I may need a bit more I don’t know. 
 

Val sees sleep as being necessary and achieves the sleep she needs to cope with the day, but is...

Val sees sleep as being necessary and achieves the sleep she needs to cope with the day, but is...

Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
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If you could take a pill to stop sleep completely would you do that? Do you get anything out of sleep?
 
I don’t know. I have never thought of that.
 
I am just wondering what your relationship with sleep now is, do you see it as an enemy or a friend or is it something you like to happen?
 
I think it is something that is normal that you should… No I haven’t looked on it as if it is an enemy or a friend. Something that is a normal thing isn’t it for you to go to bed and sleep. We all need sleep, but some people need more than others and I am wondering, I don’t know, do I need the sleep, do I need as much sleep as I needed in my younger days. I don’t know the answer.
 
No, but if you could go without it completely would you opt to do that?
 
Well I don’t know really.
 
It is a hard one to answer, some people go yes, yes, I really do, others go no, because it can be a pleasurable but it can also turn round to be the other way. It makes me feel ill, but if you can still do what you need to do during the day?
 
Yes, I get what I need to do during the day. I think if I had children, it would be a different answer wouldn’t it, but it is just me and my husband here and all my animals. But no, I do what I need to do, I think I, the only time I get, not angry, that is a strong word, but I get annoyed to think that at 7 o’clock I am tired, and then I think if I had slept last night I would have been okay, you know. 
Occasionally people would tell us that sleep is not at all important, or that they didn’t think about sleep at all. This was usually because it was either seen as a waste of time, or that lack of it wasn’t really a problem. Sleep was also seen as being less important in retirement because there isn’t the pressing need to get up in the morning to go to work.
 

Mike feels sleep is not at all important, although resting is, and he would much rather not have...

Mike feels sleep is not at all important, although resting is, and he would much rather not have...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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Is sleep something you’ve ever gone to your doctor about?
 
No.
 
Why is that?
 
I’ve never felt the need to. Although I would say, I mean I don’t think I have major sleep problems in the sense that I’m a total insomniac but even though I suppose if you want to put labels onto people you almost might say well you’re a partial insomniac. I never felt that was a problem.
 
So you would say that is not a problem to be a partial insomniac. Because …?
 
I don’t think it needs to be a problem, but that’s me, in my position.
 
Do you think sleep is important then. Is it important to you?
 
Going to bed and having a lay down is quite important, but I don’t think sleep in itself is desperately important. I’m conscious of the fact you need to.
 
Right.
 
But I think it’s almost wasted time.
 
So if you could take a tablet, which they are looking into now to say stop you from either needing a whole night’s sleep or even part of a night’s sleep is that something you would invest in?
 
Probably yes. I don’t know if I, I mean in theory, I don’t know whether I’d actually do it now, but in theory I probably would, yes, because I think there’s better things you could be doing really.
 
Right okay. So it is about you being able to carry on doing more things?
 
Hm. Nothing very earth shattering but just something I would want to do. Even if it was sitting and reading I suppose.
 

Fred doesn’t have strong feelings about how important sleep is because he feels he has got used...

Fred doesn’t have strong feelings about how important sleep is because he feels he has got used...

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
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And another thing I ask is sleep important to you?
 
I don’t – well no, I don’t think it’s important to – well obviously not because if it was that important I would have been to the doctors I would have been somewhere long before now. I think I would be quite happy really if I can get a few hours sleep then I am pretty comfortable the next day and like I say, I might have a nap in the afternoon for about half an hour, 45 minutes something like that.It is not a major problem whether I go off or whether I don’t or have a decent night’s sleep rather. It is just one of those things that I have just got used to being that way, as opposed to doing something about it, like you know, so it is not a major problem with me no, no, not from that point of view. If I can get a few hours up in bed I am quite happy with that really.
 

Ron doesn't feel sleep is quite so important now he is retired, and in fact sees it as a way of...

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Ron doesn't feel sleep is quite so important now he is retired, and in fact sees it as a way of...

Age at interview: 74
Sex: Male
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If you could take a pill though to stop sleeping, you say sleep is not important to you. If you could, if there was some way you didn’t need to do that would you avoid sleep altogether?
 
No, not really. I don’t think you can.
 
But if there was some way – a pill, if there was a pill that would stop you sleeping?
 
Well if you had asked me that when I was in business I probably would have said yes, but now I am retired I don’t think it applies, you know, now I have got no reason for suggesting I want to stay awake for 24 hours. I don’t party, I don’t have girlfriends. No relationships at all.
 
So it is a kind of passing away the time I guess?
 
Well probably. I mean I wouldn’t know what to do for 24 hours. 

Last reviewed October 2018.

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