It’s the middle of the night and you’re still awake. It’s 3AM and you’re awake again. No amount of tossing and turning or flipping your pillow can get you comfortably off to slumberland. The baristas at your local coffee shop have stopped asking if you’d like an extra shot; the answer is always yes.
Most of us have struggled with instances of sleeplessness or insomnia. Usually it resolves itself and we once again get a good night’s sleep. But what happens when the sleeplessness continues?
This is a reality for many caregivers. I can’t tell you how many times a caregiver has told me they honestly can’t remember the last time they slept through the night. Many have given up on ever feeling rested again.
The consequences of too little sleep too often are dire and were illustrated in recent graphic by Huffington Post. After just one night of sleeplessness, you’re more likely to catch a cold, have an accident, become emotional, and lose focus. None of that mentions what a night without sleep does to your appearance and demeanor.
After an extended amount of time with fewer than six hours of sleep each night, you increase your risk of heart disease, colorectal and breast cancers, diabetes, and premature death. You also quadruple your stroke risk.
To top it all off, a recent study from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania showed that lack of sleep kills brain cells. There is no way to reverse the injury caused to your brain by prolonged sleeplessness.
Sleep is serious business, so you can’t just accept lying awake as part of your role as a caregiver. You have someone who depends on you, and skimping on sleep hurts you both.
So what are we to do? Insomnia can be caused by medical conditions, so see your doctor and discuss your sleep issues. Once medical conditions are ruled out, there are a few other things you can do to improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. If you can’t eliminate these all together, set a cut-off point and avoid them in the evening. This is a tough one, I know. When you're tired, you need something to get you through. The coffee until noon helps you feel like you got more than three hours of sleep last night. And then that glass or two of wine at night - well you deserve it and it might help you sleep. And if you're a smoker, I know that nothing helps you quiet the stress like a a good cigarette, but let's be honest, we all know it's time to quit. The problem is that your body becomes dependent upon this vicious circle of just getting through. It may take you a while to eliminate these stimulants, but ultimately your health and your sleep will benefit.
- Keep your bedroom clear of clutter. My grandma always told me, “Clutter in your room creates clutter in your brain.” This is a tough one for me - I'm a clutter bug! To get started, this might be a good project for you and the person you're caring for. Ask them to help you declutter your bedroom. Get rid of anything you don't use or love, and remember that the more you donate or throw away, the less you have to keep picked up. Anything you're unsure about giving away should go in a box or tote. Put it away somewhere you don't see every day. In 6 months, anything you haven't retrieved should be donated or tossed.
- Keep a journal. If you have trouble shutting your brain off at night, take time before bed to write down your thoughts. Get all of those nagging thoughts out of your brain. Is it tomorrow's to-do list? Write it down. Is it a dream or goal you haven't had time to work on? Write it down. Is it a question for the doctor, or a fear or worry? Whatever is in your head at night should be written down.
- Find your ideal sleep atmosphere. A cool, dark, and quiet room is typically recommended for good sleep. Avoid bright lights and invest in a white noise machine if there are noises disturbing your sleep. Even the light from your alarm clock can be disruptive - turn it away from you. I once had a bedroom that was flooded with light from the street light at night. After I hung some blackout curtains, I slept much better.
- Get Help. If you experience insomnia for an extended amount of time, call your doctor. If your insomnia is due to an aging loved one requiring help during the night, consider bringing in a paid caregiver a few nights a week.
The bottom line is this, my friends: Caregiving is tough enough. Don't handicap yourself with the effects of sleep deprivation. You have someone who depends on you to keep them well and safe. If you aren't at your best, there's no way you can give your loved one the care they really need and deserve. I know it feels counter intuitive to put yourself first, but your health and wellbeing are the most important things you have. So if it helps, don't think of getting a good night's sleep each night as doing something for you, think of it as doing something for the person you care for.