A-Z

Sleep problems in later life

Bedroom and environment for sleep

The people we spoke to had many different ideas about how their bedrooms should be laid out, and what they should have in their rooms to provide the best environment for sleeping. People ranged from believing the bedroom was only for sleeping and having nothing to distract them in it, to having all sorts of equipment such as televisions, computers, CD players and so on.
 
Ventilation
Nearly everyone we spoke to believed that it was important to have good ventilation in a bedroom, with most people having their windows open in the night and curtains drawn. They might have their windows open a little bit in the winter, or if it was cold, but would generally open them more in the summer to get as much air circulating as possible. People who weren’t able to open their windows kept their bedroom door open.
 
Beds and Bedding
Some people believed having a comfortable bed was very important for getting a good night’s sleep, as well as having the right kind of pillows. Daniel and his wife had recently bought a very expensive new bed and pillows and had noticed they were both sleeping a bit better. Several people told us how important their pillows were to them, with some having several large pillows on their beds, whereas others only had one or two thin pillows. Having the right kind of pillow was often seen as very important for a good night’s sleep, with a few people even taking them away with them if they can. Mary has a special softer German pillow which is better for her neck.
 

Carol always likes to have six pillows on her bed, and will even ask for extra pillows when she...

Carol always likes to have six pillows on her bed, and will even ask for extra pillows when she...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
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And do you have a duvet or blankets?
 
I have a duvet and I have just got my wafer thin summer one on because I was so… I kept going hot. I do.
 
And pillows do you have special pillows?
 
Two, not too fat ones. Actually there are six pillows on my bed. Don’t laugh. You know, it is a habit you know, both sides and I have them for reading. But the minute I am going to sleep then I take off the bit fat reading pillows as I call them and put them to one side.
 
Do you take them with you when go away?
 
Oh gosh no I wouldn’t have any room for them. There is lots and lots of pillows on my bed at [town] and if I am at a hotel then I will ask for more. And they always say yes. And when I go up they are all there. I ask for three, sometimes as many as three more. Yes.
Radios, TV’s and Computers
Not everyone saw their bedroom as just somewhere to sleep, for some it also acted as an office and an entertainment centre. People had electrical equipment in their bedrooms, such as computers, DVD players, as well as televisions and radios. Several people did their emails on the computers in their bedrooms, and others used their bed as a desk.
 

Sue B. takes all her paperwork up to her bedroom and spreads it out over her bed, even falling...

Sue B. takes all her paperwork up to her bedroom and spreads it out over her bed, even falling...

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
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I am a bit like the late Winston Churchill, I confess I do have magazines, paperwork, all sorts on my bed because it is a double bed.
 
So you spread all that around while you are working?
 
So they are all spread around on my bed. So it is not tidy.
 
So you go to sleep with that lot on you?
 
Yes. I sleep on one side and on the other side I have got papers and the magazines and the book and various bits and bobs. And then the thing is ready to do in the morning when I wake up.
 
Ah. And they don’t fall off?
 
In fact it is my office. A bedroom office. They do fall off sometimes and you wake in the night like crash something has fallen off.
 
So you sleep on that same side?
 
Yes. I was reading Joan Bakewell sleeps in the middle of her double bed.
 
And you sleep on one side?
 
I sleep on one side because I have always slept on that side you know, in the marital bed and wherever I sleep I sleep on a particular side.
 
Okay that is interesting. You have got all sorts of fun going on there!
 
A bit eccentric to say the least! 
However, other people felt the best environment for sleeping was to have a bedroom free of televisions, radios or music equipment in case it stopped them from sleeping. If they did have this equipment in their bedroom they would never have any of it on when it was time to go to bed.
 

Les divided his bedroom into two, one area just for sleeping, and the other with his computer and...

Les divided his bedroom into two, one area just for sleeping, and the other with his computer and...

Age at interview: 80
Sex: Male
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The other thing I like to ask people is about the layout of their bedroom, and how the layout of the bedroom affects how they sleep. You have got a television and a computer, all that stuff in there, but it seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong now. But I have got this perception that for your bedroom is about getting your sleep, and though you don’t necessarily get it, the fact that you are turning everything off and consciously not taking distractions in there?
 
I suppose so. At the back of my brain yes, the bedroom is a place to rest and sleep. But I have got used to the fact that it’s also my cubby hole for my entertainment and sleep, but the two don’t clash. There I sleep. There I play. And the two don’t really. I mean if [my wife] comes in and I am watching a programme usually it is on tape, isn’t it, so I switch it off immediately she comes in, if by chance I have been watching something.
 
Right. So the two wouldn’t clash?
 
They wouldn’t.
 
Whilst some people said they definitely would not have a television or radio in their bedroom, others found them very comforting, and that they even helped them get to sleep. Occasionally, people told us they would fall asleep either listening to the television or the radio. Those who lived on their own found that the television was a form of company and they enjoyed falling asleep listening to it. Others said that it helped to cope with not being able to sleep in the middle of the night, so that people would get up and watch TV, or go onto the computer to while away the time until they felt drowsy again. Mary has a radio in her bedroom so that she can listen to the World Service if she wakes in the night, which she says is more soothing than watching the television which tends to keep her awake. (See 'Strategies for good sleep').
 

Mary sometimes falls asleep watching the television, or listening to the radio, and would be...

Mary sometimes falls asleep watching the television, or listening to the radio, and would be...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
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You mentioned you had a television in your room is that right?
 
Yes.
 
So is that something you’d watch in bed every night?
 
No. If I’m watching something down here and I think I should be in bed I go and get myself ready for bed whilst sort of watching the end while I’m moving around and then I might just watch the end, but normally if I try to do that it sends me off, you know, watching anything sends me off to sleep.
 
So even in bed you might fall asleep?
 
Yes.
 
And does the television stay on then?
 
Yes, sometimes it’s about quarter past one and I hear this noise.
 
So you have to get up and turn it off or …?
 
Yes. I go straight back to sleep.
 
And what about the radio. Do you have a radio?
 
I like the radio Sunday nights. There is lovely music. And Sunday nights I try and be in bed at eleven to listen to David Jacobs Music Hour. So that’s till midnight.
 
And that’s Sunday night. So you’re awake listening to that till midnight?
 
Well if I’m really tired and say one more piece and I’ll… but sometimes I have to wake up and just switch that off. 
 

The pain from Juliet’s rheumatoid arthritis sometimes wakes her up in the night and she occupies...

The pain from Juliet’s rheumatoid arthritis sometimes wakes her up in the night and she occupies...

Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
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I was listening to what you were saying about if you are having a bad night you have ways to deal with it, you have strategies you do, and you mentioned putting the television on. Going on the computer. Do you have a computer in your room?
 
Oh yes, well my husband sleeps upstairs now because I don’t… the main bedroom is upstairs and there is no way I can, you know, impose that on him, so I have my, I have my special bed in my study. We are very lucky here. He has got an office and I have got a study and I have my bed. It is my cosy little den and it is untidy and I love it and so it is all in there, within two or three seconds reach. So it is all there. I have got the television in there, the computer in there and my CD player in there and I just use whatever and it usually, whatever I decide to do will send me off to sleep again.
 

Carol has heard somewhere that she shouldn’t have a television in her room, but she enjoys it as...

Carol has heard somewhere that she shouldn’t have a television in her room, but she enjoys it as...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
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So you have the television on. At what point – what is the trigger for you to say ‘right I am going to turn this off and go to sleep’?
 
If I think I have fallen asleep and I am saying to myself in my mind, well this is ridiculous, turn it off and go, you know, turn the light off. Or that is it basically or if I am reading often you fall asleep when you are reading. So … yes, you do. So that is it basically really.
 
So it is about you are waiting until you are almost falling asleep is that it?
 
I certainly don’t climb into bed, turn the light off, put my head on the pillow and wait to go to sleep, because I don’t know why, nowadays it seems why do that, when you can watch the television. I know they say you shouldn’t have one in the room, but I quite enjoy it. It is company. Apparently a lot of old people say that, their television is their world. 
Alarm clocks
Most people told us they had alarm clocks in their bedrooms. Some people carried on setting their alarms for the morning, even after they retired, so they wouldn’t feel they were wasting time in bed in the morning. Others set their alarms when they had a specific appointment to get up for, but otherwise would let themselves wake up naturally. However, the majority of the people we spoke to found that they would automatically wake at the time they needed to get up, and usually just before the alarm clock went off, if they had set it.
 

P. always sets his radio alarm for 7 am because he thinks it is wrong to stay in bed too long,...

P. always sets his radio alarm for 7 am because he thinks it is wrong to stay in bed too long,...

Age at interview: 95
Sex: Male
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But then you mentioned that, so your alarm goes off at 7?
 
Yes, sometimes I get used to hearing the alarm and I go back to sleep again. I find that sometimes.
 
You do go back to sleep again?
 
Well occasionally yes. I sort of doze. So I don’t really get up properly till about half past seven.
 
Okay is there a reason you set your alarm. Is there a reason like you feel like you need to set your alarm?
 
Well what happens I turn the radio, it is the radio that comes on, you see so I listen to that if I can hear it but probably I won’t have my hearing aid on so I might not be able to hear what he says. I might only hear a few words.
 
But why is it you feel, what I am interested in is why you feel you need to be up at 7 or awake at 7?
 
I don’t know. I feel a sort of conscience I suppose. It’s, I am probably more a puritan background I suppose. It is sinful to spend all the time in bed!
 

William relies on his alarm to get him up in the morning for his early swim, but would otherwise...

William relies on his alarm to get him up in the morning for his early swim, but would otherwise...

Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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I mean overall night for you to get up in the morning what time do you get up?
 
Oh I get up in the morning well I have a routine. I have an alarm and I must be asleep because I’m woken up by the alarm.
 
The alarm wakes you up?
 
Although I’m coming round. You know, your body gets used to the time, somehow I suppose. But I’m not reliable without the alarm because several times when I’ve forgotten to press it to make it live in the evening. I have woken up because I’ve overslept and I look at the clock and I’ve missed, because I go early morning swimming.
 
Oh right.
 
And so I just get up at quarter to seven. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, but on, unless there’s a problem on Wednesday I don’t do swimming I got to the cardiac gym class. And that doesn’t start until an hour later. So I have an extra half an hour so I change the alarm and I wake up on the alarm, the alarm goes just the right time. In other words, although I get up quarter to seven pretty well every morning, I don’t get up at quarter to seven unless the alarm goes. And there if it is a quarter past seven I get up and of course on the weekends I don’t get up as early as that. But you automatically I would say we wake up about eight. If I was left there, Saturday morning. Unless we are going somewhere then we set the alarm again and neither of us will wake up if we don’t have the alarm. In other words, if you left us there, we’d sleep, well we wouldn’t sleep forever, but you would just go on sleeping.
 
So you are getting about, on the days when the alarm goes, you are in bed for about eight hours. How much of that would you say actually is sleep?
 
Well I go off to sleep very quickly. Or I think I do. And I must do. Yes. I mean if I set the alarm, I read, I look at the alarm clock and put the book down and with means I am not aware of myself or as I say I don’t lie there or anything like that I have literally gone out. Last night, we always have friends round on Thursday and we were chatting away here and they are supposed to go by eleven and they went out the door at quarter to twelve. Well I just went up, and it was a miracle that I actually got in the bed before I was asleep, that sort of thing. But in terms of a natural waking without an alarm on the weekends I would come round by eight. Then you might realise that you’ve nothing particularly to get up for and [my partner] is fast asleep and so I’ll just doze and sometimes I just go straight off again and then [my partner] will get up and come down and make coffee and then come back and say aren’t you getting, you know, so it varies but I would say that if we have no alarm our natural waking is between eight or half past eight. 
 

Anne and her husband never set their alarms, no matter what time they need to get up because they...

Anne and her husband never set their alarms, no matter what time they need to get up because they...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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Well we’ve got alarms but, and this is the absolute truth, we never need to set it unless we’ve got to leave at three or four in the morning to catch an aircraft and the other strange thing is that wherever we’ve been in the world. Whatever the time clock, we wake up at the same time locally as we would here.
 
Okay so even if you were in America you would wake up at the equivalent of what would be 6 o’clockish here?
 
Exactly.
 
So you’re not reset your clock?
 
No.
 
How extraordinary.
 
And because we both realise we are doing this independently it isn’t a kind of trick or something, you know. My husband never sets the alarm if he’s got to get up at a particular time. Even if I say well shouldn’t you do it just in case. Don’t need to he will say.
 
And he always wakes up?
 
Yes.
 
And you said if it was 3 or 4 in the morning, what happens if they needed to have a variation from 6, say 5, or 7. Would you automatically wake up?
 
Well that’s when we’d set the alarm for safety but I can’t remember a time when either of us have needed to listen for the alarm to get up and catch a plane. We are sort of half there. And probably don’t really switch off if we know we are getting up as quickly as that.
 
That’s interesting. If you’ve got a deadline in the time you have to get up are you aware that it impacts on your sleep. Say you are worried about missing that…?
 
Well I think that’s why I always want him to set the alarm. But I think in general we are not worrying about it. We both are always saying to other people when we discuss this with friends, we wish we could sleep later.
Alarm clocks also functioned as radios and sometimes as lights in a bedroom, so that some people told us they didn’t use them as alarms, but would listen to the radio whilst dozing in bed.
 
Light
For some people having a light on in the room or nearby was very important for many different reasons. Some needed the light to see what the time was so they knew if they should try and go back to sleep, go to the toilet, or give up trying to sleep and get up. Others needed to have enough light to find their way to the toilet. Juliet, who has rheumatoid arthritis, always keeps on a low lamp near her because when she wakes up in the night to go to the toilet she is a bit wobbly on her feet. Some people told us they have a small light on so that if they wake up in the night they can read.

Frank didn’t draw his curtains at all in the night, because he liked the light to stream into his bedroom, and he enjoyed looking at his garden the minute he woke up. Several people kept their curtains slightly apart because they liked to wake up to the morning light. Having the correct amount of light in their bedroom influenced people’s choice of curtains, while some people found light curtains helped them to sleep, others needed heavyweight or blackout curtains or blinds. Needing different amounts of light in the bedroom than their partners to sleep means that some people find it difficult to go to sleep when they want to.
 

Anne can’t sleep when her husband has the light on to read, unless she is very sleepy.

Anne can’t sleep when her husband has the light on to read, unless she is very sleepy.

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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Okay so you’ll go up to bed and make preparations for bed, and then you are doing your crossword?
 
Hm, and he’s reading his library book.
 
Okay.
 
So he might have gone to sleep before I do. He always says it doesn’t matter if I’ve still got the light on. But if he’s still got the light on, I can’t sleep. So if I’m nice and sleepy that’s all right.
 
So ideally you'd like, you’re happy to carry on doing the crossword and have his light out but not the other way round, so you can get to sleep?
 
Yes.
 
And then how long did you say it takes you to get to sleep?
 
Well if I’m sleepy quite quickly, but if I have to put the light out, either because it is very late when we’ve gone to bed and by that I mean we’ve been out to friends and it might be midnight and I’m wide awake if we’ve been out.  
Heat
Several people told us that being too hot or too cold in their bedroom affected how they slept. Mary lives on her own and sleeps in a double bed, so when she gets hot in the night, she can roll over onto the other side of the bed where it is much cooler. If Mary is too hot it makes her toss and turn, and she has to sleep with the window open, or if she is too cold she cannot get to sleep at all. A few people told us they changed their bedding according to the seasons, with some of them finding they hated being too hot, so would only have a light duvet or even just a blanket. Others told us they couldn’t sleep because they were too cold, and found different ways to deal with this, such as having heavy blankets and sheets instead of a duvet to keep them warm, or making hot water bottles in the night.
 

Anne and her husband find they get too hot if they don’t sleep with a lightweight duvet, even in...

Anne and her husband find they get too hot if they don’t sleep with a lightweight duvet, even in...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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It does get a bit hot in our bedroom as well and neither of us like being hot, I mean we are very lucky that we both like the same things. So even in the winter we use the summer duvet, a very, very thin summer duvet and in the summer we can’t even stand the duvet a lot of the time so when we had that spell a couple of weeks ago we just had a sheet and I will occasionally put a blanket over the sheets. But we are always warmer than other people I think.

Reading
Whilst several people did read books, newspapers or magazines in their living rooms, many also liked to read in their bedrooms before settling down for the night either in bed, or sitting in their bedroom. Most people told us they fell asleep very quickly if they read before turning the light out and found they were reading only a few pages each night, although others found they could read for an hour or so before feeling tired. People also tended to read in bed in the night if they woke up, but usually only if they didn’t have a partner who may be disturbed by the light. (See 'Strategies for good sleep')
 

Margaret often wakes up in the night and reads, sometimes two or three times a night.

Margaret often wakes up in the night and reads, sometimes two or three times a night.

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
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So you’ll wake up in the night and do you do anything before you pick up the book or do you say to yourself, or do you try and get back to sleep, then pick up the book, how does it work for you?
 
Well first of all we are lucky because we have lights over the bed. [My husband] has one, I have another one and they are both very subdued. So I fish around and find the light, being very careful not to wake him up. Mind you I’m so lucky because I can’t wake him up. It's lovely. Then I put the light on and then I’ve always got the book within hand. So that’s what I do. I don’t get up and go to the loo. I don’t do this. I don’t do that. That’s what I do, and then fortunately after about a page and a half or three I am like this and I can hardly see a thing and I think goody I’m off. And then I think about what I’ve read. I don’t think about anything else. I think about I’ve read and then within seconds I’m off again and I can do that as I say twice a night, sometimes three times a night when I have a bad night, not a bad night, it feels as if it’s bad, but of course I do get back to sleep again. 

Last reviewed October 2018.

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