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Sleep problems in later life

Retirement and current employment

Several people we talked to who were aged over 65 were still working part-time. Some had retired from their main career then started another different part-time job in retirement, whilst others continued with their careers but had changed to working fewer hours. P. retired when he was 65, but 30 years later was still studying, researching and writing publications. He regularly travels to London for his unpaid work and didn’t envisage he would ever give up.

Several people we spoke to believed there was a strong link between the amount of physical activity they undertake and how well they sleep, with the majority believing they sleep less well in retirement because they are less active, even though they may be doing all they can during the day to keep busy. Anne also thought there was a link between mental activity and poor sleep. Now she isn’t working her brain is less active, and Anne believes that may be why she often lays awake at night thinking about things.
 

Fred believes he sleeps less well now because he is much less active since he retired.

Fred believes he sleeps less well now because he is much less active since he retired.

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
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And did you have a physically active job?
 
hm.
 
Yes.
 
Oh yes, yes. an engineer, when I was in engineering. It wasn’t heavy. But you were in and out of aeroplanes and all this sort of thing. An aeroplane engineer it was. Aircraft engineer, but just before I retired I was made redundant from the Engineering Company, been there for years, and I thought well at my age, I was about 63, I think at the time. And I said to [my wife] there is no engineering around this area now, all the engineering has died out for whatever. And believe it or not I finished up, I applied at Sainsbury’s to work in the shop. Never having done that in my life before, and I got the job and I worked there for about eighteen months or something like that and it was eye opening and it was very physical, because you were either out the back or stocking the shelves, so quite heavy boxes that sort of thing. And I used to start at six when I first started, six in the morning until three o’clock I think it was, and then as I got nearer to retirement I started cutting down on the hours, because once I started drawing my private pension the taxation situation in this country, you know, I mean it wasn’t worth going to work for eventually.
 
So that is why I completely retired. But it was quite physical while I was there. Because then I left there and I went down to Safeways in [town] which is now Morrisons and had a similar sort of job there, but that was on the veg. where you have got your big sacks of potatoes and stuff like that, that you bring in. so in a way it was good. It kept me fit. Because I have got arthritis of the spine and my knees for years. So it kept my body supple and all that sort of thing. When you went for a cigarette break or whatever, you sat there and think 'oh nice to have a rest'. So it was good. But I have always enjoyed, I mean years ago I was, I used to work at a local animal products in [town] and that was all heavy, dead animals, carting around. So I have always been a physical sort of bloke you know, and sport, cricket, football, all that sort of thing you know, swimming, holidays all that sort of thing. So I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that I have not been as energetic if you like as I used to be. I even started going over the stadium, oh a couple of year ago now, may be more. I started going swimming, because I love swimming anyway. But there again probably I just couldn’t be bothered you know, I stopped going, but as I say, I do say play golf twice a week, which I think is good for my body obviously. It is obviously I like the game, but also you are out in the fresh air, exercise, you meet people. The social side back in the old 19th hole afterwards and a nice pint, you know, it’s great. 
Those who worked part-time believed working affected their sleep in two ways. Most of them believed they slept better because they were more physically and mentally tired, but they also were aware that they probably got less sleep overall on the days they worked because they needed to set their alarms to get up.  Some of those who worked told us they tended to go to bed earlier the night before they worked because they knew they would find it difficult to manage if they didn’t, largely because they found working more tiring now they were older.
 

Mike goes to bed earlier when he is working the next day because now he is older he finds he...

Mike goes to bed earlier when he is working the next day because now he is older he finds he...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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Okay yes. I mean I suppose even when I’m not working I’m not into any very fixed pattern. I mean if I’m working because I’m one of these people that takes a long time, I don’t like rushing around in the morning, I like to have time to move slowly and so I often get up 5.15, 5.30. So that means I probably go to bed somewhere around 9.30 give or take a quarter of an hour and then as I say I get up about 5.15, 5.30, so that I can get out the house about 7 o’clock. So that would be normally what I do then. If I’m not working and it’s just an ordinary day, Mondays and Tuesdays, my wife usually works and I usually get up reasonably early before her, so I’m driven a little bit by if it’s the day I’m not working, but she is, its driven a little bit by getting up and getting started. So that she can tie in with that. On days when neither of us are working I would say probably I get up between 7 and 7.30 having gone to bed between ten and eleven the previous night. But there isn’t any time table at all really. If I am watching something interesting in the television, if I’m playing on the computer or anything like that then I wouldn’t say well I’m going to stop now because its bed time.
 
So you have a, it’s the timing, that really vary. So you think if you are up earlier because of work you adjust your bedtime is that what you are doing?
 
Yes. I try to. I mean on odd occasions, I can’t remember one off the top of my head, but on odd occasions perhaps there is some reason why I can’t get to bed early and if so you just sort of shrug your shoulders and get on with it really. But in an ideal world if I’m going to work with an early start the following day, I mean the test centre opens at 8, I usually try and get in there quarter, to half hour an early to get ready. If I’m going to do that I would normally try and go to bed around 9.30 the night before.
 
So you do make sure you get to bed earlier?
 
I try to yes, yes, because again, I mean I’ve often been an early starter at work. I worked for Thames Water for donkeys years and I was on the operational side, albeit in the office, so then I used to try and get to work by about half seven, so I was sort of in a bit of a mindset, well I’m used to getting up fairly early, but I mean even ten years ago I could go to bed at half eleven and get up at 5.30, 6.00 without it being an issue, but I think times starting to catch up with me a bit now. 
Retirement also brings the possibility of changing daily routines. Some of the people we spoke to did change their routines, whilst others carried on very much as they did when they were working. Those who decided to change their routines after their retirement had looked forward to having the freedom not to set the alarm, and to go to bed and get up when they wanted.
 

Sue B. enjoys the fact that she doesn’t have to set the alarm to get up for work and can now wake...

Sue B. enjoys the fact that she doesn’t have to set the alarm to get up for work and can now wake...

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
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So you have got a radio in your room?
 
Yes, I have got, yes.
 
Is it a radio alarm?
 
No it is just an ordinary radio which I switch on for Radio Four in the morning. By my bed, yes.
 
And do you have that on to go to sleep too?
 
No.
 
So that is not on?
 
No.
 
Do you have an alarm on at all?
 
I have a clock alarm if I have to get up early if I have got an appointment for something yes. I don’t put the alarm on. That is the bliss of being a pensioner and not having to go out to work. But if I had a dental appointment which I have had in the past really early then obviously I do put the alarm on.
 
Other than that you just wake up naturally?
 
Yes. Which is wonderful. 
 

Fred enjoyed not having to get up straight away and rush around getting ready for work.

Fred enjoyed not having to get up straight away and rush around getting ready for work.

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
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Well, that's the difference again with a routine, you see when you are working your mind is set on the alarm obviously you get up at five because I used to start at six. So you set the alarm at five. You see I have never been one for hitting the snooze button. As soon as that alarm goes off I am out of bed. Straight downstairs, put the kettle on. Back up have a shave or whatever. Cup of tea. Get dressed. Out to work. You have got to because you are going to work. But being retired now I can sit out there and watch the birds for an hour, hour and a half, if we are not going anywhere, sit there and watch the old birds in their box waiting for them to come out. I have no reason to start rushing and tearing about. 
The flexibility of not having to get up in the morning and go to work also meant that people could be less worried about the fact that they weren’t sleeping so well in the night.
 

Fred doesn’t worry about being awake for some time in the night because he doesn’t have to get up...

Fred doesn’t worry about being awake for some time in the night because he doesn’t have to get up...

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
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The nearer the time, you looked forward to your retirement, obviously and you can do this that and the other and you haven’t got to be anywhere at any special time and all that sort of time, you can be a lot more flexible in what you do, but actually as for the sort of pattern of sleep or whatever, I never gave it any thought, you do just, you just go to bed and you get up the next morning sort of buisness. But I have always been one for, what is the word, not really sort of fussy with sleep if you get what I mean, because you have got to have so much sleep. If you go to bed and you don’t sleep okay it is not a problem. You can come downstairs. I have even come down before now, just recently and I have sat in this chair for an hour and I mean I have done the Suduko, the crossword, and the letter search thing. Because I have just been so wide awake. I have sat down for an hour. But that is exceptional I must admit. You know.
 
You didn’t worry about it too much?
 
It doesn’t bother me, because as I say I don’t go to work now, I am retired so okay if I sleep in a bit longer in the morning eventually, where is the problem, you know, but it is a probably a lazy way of looking at it, but you can be more flexible that way when you are retired.  
 
Others, however, were disappointed in the changes that retirement brought. Roy was looking forward to being more relaxed in retirement, but has found he has more to worry about now and this keeps him awake at night.
 
Napping wasn’t usually possible when people were working, but since retirement more people found they might nap or doze during the day because they were able to. Those who worked part-time also found it useful to be able to nap during the day, either before they go to work to give them the energy they needed, or after they worked if they were particularly tired. A few of those who were working found they got more tired, more quickly now that they were older and that napping was something they scheduled in the day to cope with that.
 

Jacqui finds that she gets more tired when she works now than she used to when she was younger.

Jacqui finds that she gets more tired when she works now than she used to when she was younger.

Age at interview: 69
Sex: Female
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Do you find then the next day. How do you feel when you get up to the day shift?
 
I’m shattered and by the time the shift finishes at half past two ready to come home and normally I would sit on the couch and just sleep. Sometimes I’ll even climb into bed and just have a couple of hours sleep.
 
So how long do you think that messes you up for?
 
You know, about three days. It sounds a lot. Because of my age. I definitely think it’s because of my age.
 
Do you think when you were younger you would have recovered sooner?
 
They recover much sooner.
 
Is that something you talk about amongst yourselves?
 
We do talk about it. But I have just decided it’s because of my age, it takes me that much longer to recover from it.
 
So if you were having a normal, a normally disrupted night but in your own home do you think that would take you longer to recover from as well?
 
It wouldn’t take as long as the [place] one, because I’ve done two shifts don’t forget. I have done a late eight hour shift and then say I get of hours sleep and then I’ve got another seven and a half hours shift. That is quite a lot isn’t it.
 
And are you on your feet all the time?
 
Yes.
 
You said next week you anticipate your sleep being really bad. Is that because you’ve got some shifts next week?
 
I have got some shifts next week. This week is good. I’m using this as a catching up process. Because I have been doing a lot of shifts and I have been away for the last two weekends doing things, so I have been really, really tired and I still feel very tired actually. So it’s good that I’m not working because if I want to sleep in the afternoon I will. And I do that often.
 
You do, because that’s something else I like to talk to people about is, you know, how they feel about day time sleep. So if you’ve had a particularly bad time, you will quite happily come home and sleep?
 
Yes.
 
And you said sometimes you can go up to bed?
 
If I’m really tired I’ll just get into bed, otherwise I’ll just sit here and nod off for sometimes an hour and that’s all I need and I feel so much better and then I can carry on and cook dinner and all that sort of thing.
 
So is it something you plan to do then. Is it somebody saying right I’m really tired I am going to sit down now and go to sleep or does it overcome you?
 
It overcomes me quite honestly, Sue yes, I fight against it because usually there is so much to do, there’s the ironing to do or something to do or I might like to go and have a swim but sometimes it just over and over comes me and I think no, do you know what I’m learning as I’m getting older. I’m actually listening to my body and that’s something I’ve never done in my life. I’m so stubborn and I know I not going to give in, I never wanted to give in. No I have got to keep going. Now I’m listening. I’m saying okay no I’m not going to go. I’m going to have a rest now. 
Several people had noticed a gradual change in their sleep since they retired, but thought this was due to several reasons. Some believed the change was because they altered their daily routines, such as when they went to bed or when they got up in the morning. Others felt that it was more likely to be because they were getting older, or perhaps their health was worsening. Some people told us they noticed they were waking up a lot more in the night to go to the toilet or for other reasons since they retired (see 'Going to the toilet in the night'). Sometimes it was a combination of several reasons post-retirement.
 

Ronald thinks his sleep has changed since retirement for several reasons, including changes in...

Ronald thinks his sleep has changed since retirement for several reasons, including changes in...

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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Well I suppose soon after I retired. Perhaps I took early retirement, as I say I was about 53. And then, yes, that’s it the back problem. Probably a change then, I mean from the routine of going to work in the end from sort of 8 o’clock to five o’clock, it seemed to just generally make my sleep pattern change a bit.
 
Oh so you think there was probably a change from… because you had that routine?
 
Yes, that is right. I think that is something to do with it.
 
That is interesting. Yes. So your day changed because you didn’t have this I have to get up to go to work kind of thing?
 
Hm.
 
So then your sleep pattern changed at that time?
 
Seemed to change yes.
 
Well that is interesting.
 
Either associated with that and plus the age and then plus this health problem with…
 
Did you have an expectation that your sleep might change as you aged. Did you think that might happen?
 
No.
 
You didn’t?
 
No.
 
So it came as a surprise to you?
 
I didn’t think about it. 
 

Roy has noticed a gradual decline in his sleep since he retired and puts it down to having more...

Roy has noticed a gradual decline in his sleep since he retired and puts it down to having more...

Age at interview: 82
Sex: Male
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So how long ago do you think you started having this sort of two phases of sleep at night?
 
Well all I can say it is a long time ago, probably since I retired.
 
Okay, so you noticed a change in your sleep when you retired?
 
Yes.
 
Okay can you pinpoint anything. Was it a gradual change from when you retired or was it something that happened suddenly as you retired, or was there anything else that was going on at the time?
 
It’s a gradual change. I think. Whether it is connected with the worries which have developed since I have been in retirement, and concern about my brother and [partner] upstairs. And other business matters. They sort of gradually developed in my retirement.
 
But…
 
And are these things that you are worrying about at night?
 
Yes. That is the short answer really. 
 
Whilst retirement brought the possibility of not having to get up early go to work and more time during the day to relax, many of the people we spoke to found they wanted to carry on with their pre-retirement routines, and even felt guilty if they had a ‘lay in’ in the morning. P. described this as being a part of both his puritanical upbringing and a strict work ethic.

Last reviewed October 2018.

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