A-Z

Sleep problems in later life

Making sense of poor sleep

Many people we spoke to were aware that their sleep had changed, and in particular had worsened over the years, and whilst some took these changes in their stride, others tried to make sense of why they were sleeping less well.
 
Most people had an idea of what their perfect night’s sleep would be but this often differed considerably to how they actually slept. This difference was explained in three ways. Some people thought that the change in their sleep pattern was purely caused by getting older, and difficulty sleeping was associated with old age. Others had read or heard about what a perfect night’s sleep should be and they compared their own sleep to this ‘ideal’ image. And some people believed their sleep should be scheduled between certain times of the night and they now felt that their sleep failed to fit within those times.
 

Robert believes 8 hours sleep would be ideal for him based on it being a convenient length of...

Robert believes 8 hours sleep would be ideal for him based on it being a convenient length of...

Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I also like to ask people historically about how their sleep has changed. So what did you say was your optimum time for sleep? If you had a perfect night, how long would you sleep for? How many hours do you think would suit you?
 
Probably eight hours.
 
Where does that come from, that eight hours?
 
Well its probably when I was physically enabled again through like I think particularly for my age I am physically more, perhaps more robust thank goodness, but more active.
 
Okay.
 
And I think getting physically tired.
 
Written only'
Cutting that grass for example and keeping that garden under control is my biggest problem in life at the moment. It’s also the biggest stimulus and probably accounts for you know, being relatively active physically.
 
Because you are doing the garden?
 
So I am curious why people choose a particular length of time which they think is appropriate. Is eight hours something that you feel that you need and if so what do you base that on?
 
No I could adapt to much less than that.
 
Oh okay?
 
I think it’s convenient time wise. I think it’s good for me physically. I don’t usually need it mentally inasmuch, as I even though I know I can wake up feeling even physically tired, not very often. I don’t usually wake up feeling mentally tired. Because it is very easily said in my stage now for me to misjudge mentally tired with being depressed.
 

Daphne has read somewhere that older people don’t need so much sleep.

Daphne has read somewhere that older people don’t need so much sleep.

Age at interview: 88
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
How was your sleep then when you were working full time?
 
I don’t know. I don’t seem to have too many sleep problems really. No I think it was more or less just the same.
 
Exactly the same yes. So have you noticed any change at all in how you’ve slept as you got older apart from as you say needing to sleep during the day. Have you noticed any change in your sleep at all?
 
Well I never used to wake up in the middle of the night like I do now. But I believe older people don’t need so much sleep.
 
Right is that something you’ve heard, older people don’t need so much sleep?
 
Or I have read it a lot and I think oh well this must be true, people do wake up in the night, they don’t need it. But I’d love to sleep in. Yes.
 

Otto's perfect night would be 8 hours of sleep uninterrupted, and he has read somewhere that that...

Text only
Read below

Otto's perfect night would be 8 hours of sleep uninterrupted, and he has read somewhere that that...

Age at interview: 82
Sex: Male
HIDE TEXT
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
And if I said to you, you could have a perfect night’s sleep tonight. Can you describe to me what a perfect night’s sleep would be?
 
Well sleeping the whole night through.
 
And how many hours would that be?
 
Well I suppose about eight hours.
 
Is that a sleep you used to have eight hours all the way through or what do you base that on. Your perfect night’s sleep?
 
I suppose we used to go to bed about ten and I had to be up at six in the morning to travel to work.
 
Oh right so you used to be in bed at ten then and up at six. So that’s an eight hour period and did you sleep right the way through that when you were doing that?
 
No, I had to get up in the night.
 
So I’m just trying to get an idea really of where you get this idea of I would like to have eight hours as my perfect night’s sleep. Where does that come from?
 
Well I have read that a good night’s sleep is eight hours.
 
Is that anything the doctors said to you at all about what a good night’s sleep should be?
 
No.  
 
 

Margaret bases her idea of a perfect night’s sleep on going to bed at 10 pm and getting up at 7...

Margaret bases her idea of a perfect night’s sleep on going to bed at 10 pm and getting up at 7...

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
So if I could say to you have a perfect night’s sleep what would that be for you?
 
To sleep from 10 o’clock till seven.
 
Okay so right the way through then?
 
Hm.
 
And that’s nine hours?
 
Yes. May be that’s too high an expectation.
 
No it depends really what you base it on. Where do you get the idea of the nine hours from?
 
Well by the time 10 o’clock comes I’m absolutely shattered. I just need nothing but my bed. Sometimes I am so tired I can hardly take my clothes off. So I must go at a fair old lick most of the day. But 7 – 7.30 seems to be a civilised time to get up and get ready for the day.
 
It’s not about, is that a sleep you have ever had, nine hours right the way through?
 
I don’t know if I’ve ever done that.
 
Okay and it’s not about what you’ve heard. Have you heard what a good night’s sleep might be?
 
Yes I’ve heard a good night’s sleep is probably eight hours.
 
I’m just interested in where people, why people think, I ask them that question well where does that come from? There seems to be a variety of … you have given me a good time to go to bed and a good time to get up?
 
Yes, that’s really what I’m talking about, and what happens in between you know, how many hours or whatever is not really that important. It’s just that I need to go to bed at ten. Seven o’clock seems to be a reasonable time to get up.  
People often told us they had read or heard somewhere about what is the right amount of sleep, the best way to sleep, or things to avoid to help with sleep, but they weren’t always sure where they had got that information from.

Peter, who had been a long distance runner for many years, read several articles about sleep in his running magazine where it was recommended that plenty of sleep was needed before and after a race. Occasionally people told us their doctor’s had given them advice about sleep. John’s doctor told him that he should expect to sleep less as he got older, and so not to be worried about it.
 

Sue B. read in a newspaper how giving up alcohol may help you sleep better, but hasn’t found it...

Sue B. read in a newspaper how giving up alcohol may help you sleep better, but hasn’t found it...

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I go upstairs… I have my supper really early because I am always trying to lose weight and I am under a nutritionist which is excellent. She said eat early. So I have my supper as early as five o’clock and then try not to eat much more after that. I have given up alcohol for Lent. So far I have not slipped.
 
Well done.
 
Which is not too bad… I thought I would find it difficult. So I am pleased about that and I have, at odd times when my son comes in with his problems, I think goodness I could do with a drink tonight, but I haven’t.
 
So then do you find giving up the alcohol has made any difference to your sleep?
 
Well I am wondering. I was reading about sleep in the newspaper yesterday and it says that a woman who was detoxing without alcohol for a month and she felt she was sleeping more soundly, but to be honest I don’t really think it has made much difference.
 
No difference to you?
 
I don’t think it has no. I have been sleeping very well the last sort of ten days. 
 

Anne has read somewhere that as long as you have blocks of good quality sleep that last two hours...

Anne has read somewhere that as long as you have blocks of good quality sleep that last two hours...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
So if I said to you tonight you will have a perfect night’s sleep can you describe what that might be?
 
Going to sleep without a struggle and waking up knowing that I haven’t been awake earlier in the night.
 
So sleep right the way through?
 
Yes.
 
And is there a time period when it would take place a length it would be?
 
It takes me by surprise, like this morning.
 
What do you mean by that then?
 
I was surprised when it was as late as quarter to six that I looked at the clock.
 
So a perfect night’s sleep would take you by surprise?
 
Sleeping uninterruptedly. Because even waking up, I have gone, you know, a lot of the times I go back to sleep again. I suppose occasionally something has woken us up, but that would be far less often then we have woken ourselves up. The other thing we are aware of, is that if one gets up and goes to the loo, the other one’s immediately awake. So we’re not sleeping very deeply some of the time.
 
What would your perfect length of sleep be?
 
Well I am aware that you need at least two hours in a block for quality sleep.
 
Oh right. Where did you hear that from?
 
Don’t know. I have known it for years. I must have read it in a few places. But you know, once you’re properly asleep it’s a two hour slot that is actually doing you any good, so I suppose subconsciously I don’t care if I’ve had at least two hours sleep.
 
So you would be quite happy, a perfect night would be if it was a good deep sleep to be two hours. Is that what you mean?
 
Yes. If it wasn’t every night. I am sure I need more than that on a more regular basis. 
Several people cited Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill when they talked about their poor sleep, telling us that they were well known for not sleeping very much. A few people recalled that Margaret Thatcher only needed about 2-4 hours' sleep a night and therefore assumed that now they are older, about 4 hours a night would be sufficient for them too. Anne thought it would be wonderful to be like Margaret Thatcher because that meant she would have many more hours in the day to do everything she has to get done. Some people mentioned Winston Churchill’s habit of sleeping only a few hours during the night, but taking naps during the day, and decided that if it is was all right for Winston Churchill it should be all right for them. There was a general sense among some of the people we talked to that if well-known people were not sleeping much or taking naps during the day then that could apply to them as well. In reality there is no set number of hours of sleep that is ideal as individuals vary in the amount of sleep they need, and different age groups need different amounts of sleep.
 

Otto wonders that if he, like Margaret Thatcher, needs only about four or five hours sleep now he...

Text only
Read below

Otto wonders that if he, like Margaret Thatcher, needs only about four or five hours sleep now he...

Age at interview: 82
Sex: Male
HIDE TEXT
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
And so when you to the loo how long does it take you after that to go back to sleep?
 
Well sometimes I am still awake two hours afterwards. And then of course it’s getting near the time when I have to get up the next time. So I’ve hardly had any sleep.
 
So if, say now how many hours sleep a night are you actually getting do you think?
 
Well I should think about four or five hours or something like that. Whether that’s all I need, because I know Mrs Thatcher used to only sleep about four hours.
 
Yes. So you feel tired in the morning when you wake up?
 
Yes.
 
And what about during the day. Do you feel tired during the day?
 
Yes, I don’t watch much television. I only used to watch the David Attenborough programmes but as soon as I’ve started watching I’d go to sleep. 
 

Sue B. compares her sleeping habits with well known people.

Sue B. compares her sleeping habits with well known people.

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
What about if you go away and there is a duvet?
 
Oh I do cope with it no problem, you know, no problem, but I just prefer. I am a bit like the late Winston Churchill I confess I do have magazines, paper work, 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. The 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.
 
And any special pillows do you have?
 
Yes. I am quite keen on my pillows yes. I did buy some really nice pillows about six months ago and so I do change those because of this dust mite problem. So I have two pillows, really good pillows and I was reading this article that pillows are important too aren’t they.
 
Yes, yes, they are. Do you take them away with you if you go away?
 
No I don’t. Well I suppose I have done occasionally yes, yes. But I am not that neurotic. I think Prince Charles does. 
People varied about whether they talked about sleep with friends or family, from those who told us it was a frequent topic of conversation to those who never discussed it. Those who didn’t talk about their sleep said this was largely because they weren’t bothered by the fact their sleep wasn’t particularly good and had accepted it as a part of getting older. When people first spoke to friends or older relatives about their lack of sleep, they realised that it was a common problem.
 

Mike rarely discussed his broken sleep with friends or family because, although he slept quite...

Mike rarely discussed his broken sleep with friends or family because, although he slept quite...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
Is it something you talk about with friends? You mentioned a colleague was telling you about how to relax. Is sleep something that ever comes up in your conversation, say people talk to you about it or do you talk to them or …?
 
Not really, no. I suppose as you say, I suppose I must have mentioned it occasionally. I think it probably was just general, I wouldn’t say it is in my conversation. If anyone was talking and the conversation got around into that sort of area I suppose I would probably say in passing 'well I don’t sleep very well', but then move on to the next thing. Because as I’ve probably said a dozen times already it’s not that important to me.
 
Yes.
 
It’s not something that concerns me to that extent, no. 
 

Dessie will ring one of her very good friends every morning to talk about how they both slept the...

Dessie will ring one of her very good friends every morning to talk about how they both slept the...

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
So you discussed the fact that you weren’t sleeping?
 
Yes, yes. And I think some of them, said no I don’t sleep very well either my dear. It is age.
 
That wasn’t what you wanted to hear?
 
So there was no sympathy there I thought.
 
It is interesting you saying that that you think it might be linked to age. That is quite a common thing that people say. So sleep is something you talk generally now with friends or family?
 
No. I have a friend I ring up every morning at quarter past eight. She still lives in Birmingham. We have been friends for sixty something years. And I say 'how are you doing' and she will say 'awful'. She will probably use an expletive as well. 'How are you doing', 'oh you know, the same'. Okay right. We have set out day out before us on the phone you know and then sometimes I will ring her and she says 'oh I have been awake since four' and sometimes she will say 'I had a good night, I didn’t wake, you have woken me up. The phone has woken me up' and I feel guilty but so… and I think well this is the pattern of everybody you know, it probably is. Don’t worry about it. It is just another stage of life.
 
It comes with getting older and all this sort of thing?
 
Yes.

Last reviewed October 2018.

donate
Previous Page
Next Page