Getting a good night’s sleep is critical for our health and to our bodies’ ability to function. As we age, our circadian rhythms—the internal clocks that cycle our brains between sleepiness and alertness—can be transformed. When that happens, our sleep cycles tend to change and have the potential to disrupt our daily and nightly activity patterns.

Research suggests that those disruptions can be severe among individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Up to 71 percent of those with Alzheimer’s experience fragmented and restless sleep, and have high occurrences of nightly awakenings, difficulty falling asleep, and waking up too early.

Although sleep-wake cycle changes have long been attributed to the progression of Alzheimer’s, researchers now believe that sleep disruptions often appear among initial symptoms of the disease. But whenever they first appear, sleep disturbances vary in type and frequency as dementia worsens. Individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might sleep later than usual and awaken disoriented. As the disease advances, they’re more likely to take frequent daytime naps and lie awake for long periods at night. In time, their ability to remain asleep and stay alert will be affected.

The affect on caregivers

Evidence shows that when persons with Alzheimer’s experience sleep disturbances, those problems negatively impact their caregivers’ sleep quality as well.

Symptoms of sleep disturbance in someone with Alzheimer’s include nighttime wandering, frequent awakening, and snoring. Not surprisingly, those symptoms are likely to keep their caregivers worried and awake. Indeed, nearly one-third of caregivers report feeling burdened by a care recipient’s sleep problems.

Individuals with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can also experience sundown syndrome, or sundowning as it’s often called. Nearly 20 percent of people with dementia have increased confusion or agitation in late afternoon and early evening. Sleepiness only increases sundowning’s effects and, thus, adds to a caregiver’s overall stress.

Eventually, affected caregivers will usually reach a point where their own sleep loss becomes an unmanageable burden. That’s when caregiving often becomes too difficult for them to manage alone. In fact, sleep problems are a leading reason behind caregivers’ decisions to admit care recipients to assisted living facilities.

What you can do

There are steps you can take to increase your care recipient’s sleep quality, as well as your own:

  • Talk to a doctor to rule out any possible underlying medical issues. Conditions such as pain, depression, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome can also cause sleep disruptions.
  • Whenever possible, limit daytime sleeping. If your care recipient needs a nap, try to keep it to thirty minutes or less.
  • Maintain consistent daily schedules for eating meals, waking up, and retiring for bed.
  • Consider a day program. Day programs provide families a break from their day-to-day responsibilities of caregiving, and the opportunity to take care of their own needs—such as catching up on much-needed sleep.
  • Reduce the use of stimulants that interfere with sleep, such as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
  • Make time for physical activity. Research shows that daytime walks can help improve sleep patterns for people with Alzheimer’s.
  • Create a quiet and comfortable sleeping environment, with proper temperatures and dim lighting.
  • Manage medications to be sure the person in your care is taking them at appropriate times and in proper dosages.