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How to Make Nighttime Caregiving Easier

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For the third time tonight, around 4 a.m., your mother calls out that she needs help getting to the bathroom. You wearily rise and groggily assist her, trying to muster your last shreds of patience. Tucking her back into bed, you ask yourself if you should even try to hit the pillow again yourself. You’ll have to be up in a couple of hours to get ready for work, anyway. Deciding you might as well stay up, you brew a cup of coffee and contemplate how you’re going to get through the day on six scant hours of interrupted sleep.

It’s a common scenario for family caregivers. Maybe you’re familiar with it.

Many health conditions can prompt seniors to get up during the night. Overactive bladder, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain and insomnia are just a few of the conditions that might plague seniors and cause them to wake up multiple times every night. And when they require assistance during these waking episodes, your own sleep becomes fragmented.

Tips to Make Nighttime Caregiving Easier

Fortunately, family caregivers can employ several strategies to make nighttime caregiving easier and more efficient, potentially minimizing sleep interruption for everyone involved. Here are some tips to help, based on the reason a senior gets up during the night.

1. Frequent urination

If a loved one formerly slept through the night but has begun getting up to use the bathroom frequently, you might want to consult his or her doctor to make sure the senior does not have a urinary tract infection or some other treatable condition. Seniors often do not process pain signals the way younger people do, so they may not express having discomfort with urination even if they have an infection.

If an infection has been ruled out and the senior simply needs to empty his or her bladder frequently at night, then you might streamline the process by adding a portable bedside commode. These chair-style items make it easy and quick for a senior to get up, urinate, and climb back into bed. They also enhance safety, since seniors don’t have to walk a long distance in the dark to reach the toilet.

2. Chronic pain

Aging often brings with it a host of aches and pains. These nagging complaints can make it difficult for a senior to get comfortable in bed and sleep through the night.

Once again, a first step might be to have a chat with your loved one’s doctor, especially for new complaints of pain. A medical professional may be able to pinpoint the cause of pain and prescribe medication or make specific suggestions for alleviating the discomfort in order to make sleeping easier.

However, if the pain is ongoing, try using pillows, a foam mattress topper or even an adjustable bed to help the senior find a comfortable sleeping position. Through a process of trial-and-error, try tucking pillows between the knees, behind the back or under the head to find out what combination relieves the senior’s discomfort. A mattress topper may add softness that relieves pressure point pain. And an adjustable bed, the ultimate sleeping comfort item, might provide general pain relief.

3. Insomnia

Many people think insomnia means being wide awake all night, but that’s not the case. Clinically speaking, insomnia refers to any type of chronically disrupted sleep. This includes periods of frequent waking.

Insomnia occurs more frequently in seniors, though researchers aren’t quite sure why. Sometimes medications can trigger insomnia, so if a senior family member suddenly begins having trouble sleeping through the night you might want to consult his or her doctor for an evaluation.

If a senior loved one wakes frequently, make sure the bedroom contains a comfortable chair and low-level lights for reading or another non-stimulating activity like knitting or completing crossword puzzles. Avoid using tablet computers or cell phones during these episodes because their “blue light” emission is known to inhibit drowsiness.

If these techniques don’t work, and a senior family member experiences insomnia that causes you to sacrifice your own sleep for weeks or months on end, then it might be time to call in a professional. Home Instead® CAREGiversSM can provide overnight supervision of sleepless seniors so you can get a decent night’s rest without worrying about your loved one’s safety.

4. Alzheimer’s disease

Many seniors with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia engage in rummaging behavior during the night. Some theories suggest rummaging is tied to anxiety, but the behavior could have any number of triggers. While you may not be able to eliminate this behavior entirely, you can strive to manage the situation and get the senior returned to bed by:

  • Removing all dangerous objects like scissors from the rummaging area.
  • Creating a safe rummage bag, drawer or even room (like a walk-in closet). The rummage bag should include the types of item the senior seems to enjoy sorting through. Often this includes clothing, like socks. Observe the senior’s behavior to get a sense of what types of objects they like to handle, and include these in the bag.
  • When the senior awakens to rummage at night, direct him or her to the designated bag, drawer or room. Do not disturb the rummaging. Keep lights low.

Nighttime Safety Tips for All Conditions

No matter why a senior rises at night, you should consider several general safety practices to avoid a fall or other accident.

  • Create adequate low-level lighting. This might mean installing several nightlights, mounting stick-on LED lights beneath cabinets or even securing rope lights to the floor or stair steps to illuminate safe walking paths. Be sure rope lights do not become a trip hazard.
  • Use a baby monitor to hear a senior moving around at night. Place the monitor in the most strategic location for your needs. For instance, if you are not concerned about the senior moving around his or her own bedroom, then you don’t need to put a baby monitor there. However, if you want to be alerted should the senior enter the kitchen, then place the monitor there.
  • Consider a bed alarm if a senior has advanced dementia and wanders. These devices alert you with a tone if the senior leaves his or her bed.
  • Consider bringing in outside help. Professional CAREGivers can provide overnight supervision, toileting assistance and much more. This attentive oversight can help a senior avoid falling or injuring herself in another way.

You give so much through caregiving, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your sleep. Family caregivers who experience chronic sleeplessness face a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other medical conditions. By using the above tips to manage a senior loved one’s waking episodes as efficiently as possible, you create more robust sleep opportunities for everyone.

Last revised: October 5, 2016

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. January 3, 2022 at 8:53 pm | Posted by Jim

    She said she would not let anyone else in the house I have burned out completely passed the depression stage and now in a survival mode. Prayer is all that is left for me. All the questions are answered but not very mean solutions. Personnel I don't think there is enough information about caregivers needs and how to truly deal with them. Lol Jim


  2. March 22, 2021 at 7:59 am | Posted by Avery Lathe

    I agree with you


  3. January 7, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Posted by Nancy St Laurent

    I have been reading the notes from others and have found the suggestions very helpful. My husband is slipping into the moderate stage of vascular dementia from a hemmoragic stroke 5 years ago. He was a musician and played many "gigs" at night. If we do not go out every day for car errands, he becomes restless at night. Yesterday we didn't go out. last night he was up from 12:00 until 2 wanting to "go home" He eventually went out of the house and I had to call the Police. I wished I could think of somethig to distract him, but I just couldn't. Do others have any strategies for dealing with situations like this?


  4. October 29, 2016 at 9:15 am | Posted by Karen

    One of the best things I have done for my husbands care is having over night caregivers for him and moving out of our shared bedroom so I am able to have uninterrupted sleep. Being able to relax and sleep myself has given me more energy, patience and the ability to provide my husband with better care during the next day. It certainly isn't inexpensive, but the value I have received by having some one respond to him during the night, and improvement in my own health has been nothing but positive.


  5. October 17, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Posted by Karen

    Jeanne, Depending on your location, the National Family Caregiver Support Program may be an available option for you. This program provides respite services for the full-time family caregiver. You most certainly need a break, so you can rest and look after your health as well.


  6. October 15, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Posted by DEANNA DELGRECO

    I am sure the upcoming article will have information I find helpful.


  7. October 15, 2016 at 8:21 pm | Posted by DEANNA DELGRECO

    Interesting caregiver suggestions.


  8. October 15, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Posted by M

    Great and insightful article! Thank you!


  9. October 14, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Posted by Jeanne

    My husband is very ill. He no longer can talk, walk, Or stand up. I am his 24/7 caregiver, and I am exhausted because of having to meet all of his needs, including toileting. Because he cannot get in a bed, we sleep in lift chairs, which at least help me to get to when he can pull himself up using a floor to ceiling pole. Once in the lift chair, he cannot shift around In any direction due to his much weakened muscles. I need ideas of ways to make our situation easier. I am exhausted and my back, hips, knees, and shoulders are in bad shape; so much so that I'm not sure how long I can care for him. He refuses to go to a nursing home, and he isn't eligible for assisted living. The fact that he can make no verbal sounds mean that I have to stay with him all the time. In 4 years, I have not been able to go anywhere overnight. He gets up a lot at night, waking me to do whatever he needs. Please, can you offer any ideas to he


  10. October 14, 2016 at 11:33 am | Posted by Judy

    Thanks for the tips.


  11. October 14, 2016 at 11:32 am | Posted by ABoleynGirl

    We installed motion sensing lights in the bathroom. The bathroom light comes automatically on when my dad gets out of bed, and stays on to guide him back to bed then shuts off automatically. It's far less disruptive than a bed alarm, and lights the way to and from the bathroom. I don't favor night alarms for at home use. Too institutionalized, and too disruptive to any others in the house.


  12. October 13, 2016 at 8:52 pm | Posted by cherin

    What is the best way to tell to an elderly. That their smell is offending due to neglect of not bathing and not changing their clothes. They also have but breath, not brushing their teeth. Thank you


    • October 18, 2016 at 8:06 am | Posted by Joyce

      I am ashamed to admit this but I put out my husbands clothes every day. Sometimes I let him wear the same thing two days in a row if he has not spilled anything on it, but two days is enough. I make sure he bathes every day even if it is a stand up bath by the sink, and I know he does it because I do it for him. The reason I do it for him is because if I leave him to bathe himself, it takes him two hours it seems and when I help him I tell him every move to make because it seems that his dementia is getting worse and he can't seem to think for himself what to do next. So, my dear, help him along and you will be happier too.


      • October 29, 2016 at 4:29 am | Posted by Marcy

        When they get to that stage, you have to do it for them...we do that for our mom mom daily at a specific time so it has now become a routine for her.


  13. October 11, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Posted by Robert Feldman

    Very helpful article. It will help me take care of mt wife. Thanks Bob Feldman


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