Sleep problems in later life

Partners, companions and pets

Several people we talked to were married or living with a partner, whilst others occasionally had other family members living with them. Those who lived with a partner often told us how sharing a bed with someone influenced both their sleep and their partner’s sleep.
Because they found sharing a bed with someone frequently disturbed their sleep, couples were often torn between sleeping in the same room as their partners or sleeping apart. When they slept apart, they missed the companionship but they also found that the need for sleep often outweighed the disadvantages of not being together.
Some people had decided that they would sleep much better if they slept in different rooms from their partners. Occasionally, this was because one of the partners had a long-term illness that made them restless in the night and they not only wanted to avoid disturbing their partner, but also wanted the freedom to be able to get up and move around in the night if necessary.

Juliet, who has rheumatoid arthritis, sleeps in her own bedroom so that she doesn’t disturb her...

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Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
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.
Other couples had found over the years that they each wanted different ways of sleeping, such as more or less light, heavier or lighter bedclothes, and so both partners slept better if they could sleep the way they preferred, albeit in a different room.  
Val sleeps in her own room usually and told us how once she went into her husband’s bedroom and woke him up because she was upset she couldn’t sleep, but explained that he very patiently made her a cup of tea and talked to her until she was ready to go to sleep again.

Mary and her husband sleep better when they don’t share a bedroom, although they still do...

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Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
A hard pillow does stop you sleeping and also getting very hot at night. And with the menopause of course I got very hot and I still do get very hot and that is another reason why my husband and I don’t share a bedroom most of the time because I like the window wide open and he likes it shut.
Do you get hot in the night?
He gets cold. He is very thin and I am plump. So it works.
How long have you had separate beds?
Not all that long. We shared a double bed. We do occasionally. We do have a double bed together when the dog isn’t in the way.
But then you sleep better?
When I am with him?
When you are not with him?
I sleep better. I worry about waking him up. We are both quite light sleepers.  
Several couples did choose to remain sleeping in the same room, even if there were spare bedrooms to go to. Sometimes, though, one of the partners might temporarily go to another room to get a better night’s sleep for themselves, or to avoid disturbing their partner. Peter’s wife explained that she would move into a different room only if she had a cough, so that she wouldn't disturb his sleep.
Those who still slept with their partners also talked about changing their bedtime or wake up time if their partners weren’t there for some reason. People also told us they might change their bedtime and wake up routines if they have someone else come to live with them, whether they wanted to or not.

Anne, who usually likes to get up early and get on with things, may stay in bed a bit longer if...

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Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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.
You do?
What would be an ideal time for you to sleep till?
Like the rest of the world, sevenish I suppose.
But then you said you stay in bed for a little. Well you stay in bed for a little while when your husband’s playing golf, but if he’s not would you both stay in bed for a bit longer?
I can’t imagine wanting to just lie around in bed waiting for a bit later to arrive.
So a sense that you have to get up and get on with things?
Yes. I mentioned to you the friend who can sleep the clock round and who is a night owl really. It really frustrates me that by the time she’s sort of ready to see me if we are free and we are getting together, I’ve already been up and doing things for at least four hours and I can’t imagine wanting to waste those four hours.
Is that how you see it as wasting time?
Yes. There is so much to do.
So you get up and get on with things straight away?
Yes. First I walk down here, unlock the front door and turn the computer on. That’s my routine. My husband has already been down, remember, earlier to make to the tea and he may have already gone out. If not he might be still in the bathroom. And then probably put the washing on. Various other things. When breakfast is over then there’ll be the day's activities to prepare for or whatever.

When Daphne’s daughter came to live with her she felt she had to get up earlier in the mornings...

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Age at interview: 88
Sex: Female
So is that a normal night’s sleep for you then. Right the way through?
Yes, I usually wake up once and possibly twice at night, the beginning part of the night till two and three is flat out.
Okay, so you sleep very deeply?
Yes. I do.
And you don’t hear anything?
But then you said you had how many hours sleep a night?
Five or six it depends, it depends.
And do you feel that’s enough for you?
I’d like a lot more. I mean I go and stay with my son who lives [Country] and I sleep there until 9 o’clock in the morning.
Oh right.
And I think that’s probably because I have no stress there. I am away from all the problems. I keep thinking at home, thinking about the next day’s things and what you have got to do, and possibly that wakes me up.
But when you are at your son’s you go to bed at the same time?
Approximately yes. About perhaps 11 or 12. But to sleep, and I just sleep straight on. I sleep till about 8 or 9 o’clock there.
And how do you feel when you wake up there?
Fine, yes I feel great.
And what about here when you wake up?
Ah, All the problems descend as to what I have to do first. I am 88. So I have got to think what I have got to do and get moving.
Right. So is that the first thing that comes into your head when you wake up in the morning?
oh yes.
What have I got to do?
Well I have got a very demanding daughter. I want my tea. I want my tea!
Really. She’s like that is she…?
Your daughter is the one who is demanding from you at the moment?
Yes, I think that’s probably what’s keeping me awake.
So your daughter is living with you. Is she working?
Yes, she is.
So she is out during the day?
If she wasn’t here, would you sleep differently do you think?
Would I what?
Sleep differently?
I don’t know. I probably would get up later I should think, yes, yes. You know, you worry about her, she has got a very demanding job, and she is working for an IT company and it’s head down all day, no time for anything, you do, its horrendous. It’s very hard work. Of course she comes home very tired. A bit cross. So we cope with it.
Okay so if she wasn’t here you’d probably wake up a bit later. Do you think you’d wake up a bit more relaxed?
I would probably wake up a little bit later, yes, I probably would.
So you get up in the morning to help get her…?
Well yes, because she needs a certain length of time to get up, shampoo and shower and all
Snoring was often an issue when we talked to people about their sleep, with them either saying their sleep was disturbed by their snoring partner, or that their partners told them they snored. Women, in particular, were embarrassed about their own snoring, believing it to be something that men are expected to do, not women, and they talked about hating the fact that they snored.
Men talked about their snoring in quite a matter of fact way, and were not too concerned that they snored, although they were conscious that they might be keeping their partners awake. Margaret noticed that her husband snored less when he lost weight after he retired.  Her husband has told her she snores, but she is only aware of that on the odd occasion when she has had a glass of wine. Ronald’s snoring was so bad he went to the doctor about it and was eventually diagnosed with sleep apnoea, for which he received treatment (see 'Health, illness, and pain').

Frank’s wife slept in a different room because his snoring kept her awake.

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
Do you know if you snore at all?
She says I do. Yes.
But you are not aware of it then?
It doesn’t wake me up! And I don’t know. She wears ear plugs you know.  But nowadays she sleeps in a different room anyway so that is why I am able to use the radio and stuff like that as well.
So that brings you to make those kind of choices then, to have your own room, you are able to put the radio on, and leave the radio on. Does that help do you think in terms of you setting your own routine?
Well it leaves me more contented.
So you have had the radio about the six months you were saying?
Yes but she has been sleeping in her own room for a years or so, on and off if she has a bad night she will just get up and go into the other room anyway.
In the previous studies we have done we have talked to couples and that’s obviously something that has come up a lot is couples feel they should sleep together but actually sleep much better separately. Is that something that you’ve found that you actually do sleep better when you sleep on your own?
No I wouldn’t think so. It doesn't make a difference. I prefer it if she would sleep with me.
But it doesn’t seem to make any difference to your sleep?
Snoring is common, affecting as many as 4 in 10 people. Apart from disturbing sleep, it is generally considered harmless however, snoring may be indicative of a more serious condition called sleep apnoea. If you have sleep apnoea you repeatedly stop breathing at intervals throughout the night and then wake up, and it is worth seeking treatment for this.

Jacqui hates the fact that she snores because she believes it is something only men do.

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Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
But you know you snore now and it wakes you up?
It wakes me up sometimes, yes. I don’t snore every night apparently. But I know I do snore occasionally. And I can't explain. I hate it. It’s awful. Because you think of it as a man thing don’t you. But why? Why should it be a man thing? And I don’t smoke and I don’t think I’m overweight I’ve no explanation for it.
Is that something you might go for help for if it got worse?
If it got really bad. If [partner] was to say to me look I can’t sleep because of your snoring, I definitely would. But he hasn’t said that yet. Fortunately he’s slightly deaf in one ear.
As long as it’s the right side?
So that’s okay. But no that was such a shock when I realised that I snore!
Do you snore down here when you’re dozing do you know?
Is it just on your back?
Yes, it’s when I’m on my back and it’s when I’m in a really deep sleep I think and then I, not always but sometimes I wake myself up with a hick oh help. I usually sleep on my right side and then I don’t snore. 
The loss of a partner also had an impact on how people slept. Those people who were involved in caring for their partners who were ill, particularly those who were terminally ill, talked of having extremely disturbed sleep (see 'Impact of bereavement and caring on sleep'), and often remarked that their sleep continued to be disturbed even after their partner had died. The death of a partner often triggered a change in sleep, with several people who had lost their partners noticing that their sleep was a lot more disturbed. This change in sleeping pattern after bereavement often continued long after their partners had died, and in some cases even several years later.

Joyce sleeps less and wakes up a lot more in the night since her husband died several years ago.

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Age at interview: 79
Sex: Female
If you go to bed and you are tired and like as I said, I can’t sleep during the day, I never have been able to sleep. I am not one that would lay and doze in a chair or anything. If I was really tired I would have to lay down and stretch out, but it is a thing I have never done and I have always tried to keep busy so that when I go to bed I am exhausted. But some nights, I might get six hours. And another night it might only be about three. It all depends how your mind works, but as I said before that I do find that the television is a boon in the middle of the night. It saves you tossing about. You can put it on quietly and there is some quite interesting programmes on, especially the BBC news the world news. And I do find that interesting and I find before I know where I am I have dozed off and missed half of it you see, and then perhaps I might wake up about seven, come down and make a cup of tea and go back and usually my brother puts the paper in for me about quarter to eight and I go back with the paper. Sometimes I might doze off for another hour. But otherwise I get up and try and keep busy, but that is how I find, that since I have lost my husband, that is how my sleep pattern is.
So was it different when your husband was alive?
Oh yes. I could always have a good night’s sleep. Never no bother, you know, always reckoned to have a good seven hours at least. Seven or eight.
What seven hours unbroken or…?
Yes usually yes.
So if you could have a good night’s sleep what would that be?
Well a good night’s sleep would be a good six straight off I think. 
Other companions in the bedroom were pets, with cats and dogs often being allowed to sleep in the room and sometimes on the bed. Les explained that part of their bedtime routine starts with him going to bed, his wife coming in next, and then the cat will settle on their bed, and even though the cat snores in the night, they will not send her out of the room. Those people who shared a bed or bedroom with a pet often commented on how their sleep was disturbed by their pets.

Mary’s dog sleeps on her bed and she is sometimes aware of him stirring and sighing in the night.

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Age at interview: 72
Sex: Female
I have arthritis so that means I keep changing my position at night. And I also have asthma but that is under control with inhalers, except when I get a cold. Then it does keep me awake at night sometimes.
Does it cause you problems?
Otherwise I am fine and then I tend to wake up probably most hours, every hour and just look at the clock and turn over and go to sleep again. I have the dog with me, but he doesn’t interrupt me at all. I sometimes interrupt him. So he stirs and sighs.
Does he sleep on your bed then?
Yes he does. Yes. Yes. poodles are like that.
Here he comes on cue. Hello Toffee!
I am sure he would like to be on camera. So that is what I do. And then I would sleep on in the morning. I am not so good in the morning. But my husband comes in to get the dog about six and then takes him for a walk about seven. So that interrupts me and sometimes I turn the radio on and just listen. That sometimes sends me to sleep again. 

Last reviewed October 2018.

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