Caring for a family member at home is a labour of love that has its rewards and its hardships. Sleep deprivation is one of the negative consequences of being on-call day and night, but there are a number of ways to help you cope and hopefully get more rest so you can stay healthy and be an effective caregiver.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep a day for young adults and adults, and 7-8 hours for older adults. An ongoing lack of sleep can cause forgetfulness, lowered alertness, inability to speak and write clearly, lowered resistance to disease, unwanted weight gain, and increased risk of stroke, heart attack and adult-onset diabetes. Research has shown that lack of sleep due to caregiving duties can also lead to severe depression.
Even without the disruptions to your sleep caused by caregiving, many people have trouble falling and staying asleep.
Here are some practical ways to try to get more sleep and maintain your own health so you can provide the best possible care to your loved one:
- Don’t eat a meal or big snack before bedtime – give yourself time to digest. A full stomach can keep you awake.
- When you’re tired, resist the urge for a quick energy fix from snack foods like cookies, candy and chips. Have an apple, orange, banana or nuts instead. What you eat plays a role in how well you sleep.
- Eat several small meals throughout the day that include high-protein foods which sustain energy longer than carbohydrates, for instance, eggs, tuna and yogurt served with fruits and vegetables and whole wheat bread.
Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
- Avoid consuming coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks and chocolate in the afternoon and evening.
- Decrease alcohol and nicotine. Some people find that a drink helps them fall asleep, but alcohol actually increases the chances you’ll wake up during the night.
- Increasing your heart rate can help you sleep better. Even a 5 to 10-minute brisk walk twice a day is good exercise. However, exercising before you go to bed could keep you awake.
- Try to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Your brain will become trained to associate this time-frame with sleep.
- Playing video games, watching TV or using a computer or tablet before bed can be too stimulating. The blue light they emit stimulates our brains when we should be preparing for sleep.
- Avoid screens 30 minutes to one hour before bed.
Relaxation and breathing
- Try gentle stretching, reading or listening to music to relax you before bed and promote sleep.
- Take a bath or shower if that relaxes you.
- In bed, close your eyes and take deep, slow, regular breaths to slow your heart rate and relax your muscles. Concentrate on your breathing. Count your breaths. If your mind wanders and you start to worry about things, acknowledge it but tell yourself you’ll think about it tomorrow and return to concentrating on your breathing.
Worry and anxiety
- Even when you’re extremely tired, your mind can keep you awake with worry and anxiety that prevent you from falling asleep or staying asleep. Instead of worrying at night, try picking a time during the day or early evening when you can sit down and write a list of what is worrying you and possible solutions and put it away until the morning. Taking this action may help you put your worries away for the night so you can relax and fall asleep.
- Your bedroom should be a restful place. Unless you must sleep in the same room as the loved one you are caring for, sleep in a separate room. Make it your sanctuary. Keep it dark, cool and quiet. Leave work and papers in another room. Use a fan to create white noise, wear a sleep mask, get a good mattress, and try to keep pets out of the room. You can use a baby monitor to listen for your loved one if needed.
- If you wake up on your own or are woken by your loved one, it’s often difficult to fall back to sleep. When you get up, don’t turn on the lights (use a low-level nightlight if necessary), try not to have a conversation or do anything mentally stimulating, and stay up as briefly as possible.
- If you can’t fall back to sleep in 10 or 15 minutes, get up and do something relaxing such as reading or listening to music and return to bed when you feel yourself getting sleepy.
- A daily power nap – 15 to 30 minutes – between 1pm and 3pm when your body naturally wants to rest can help make up for loss of sleep. A longer nap can leave you groggy and make it difficult to sleep at night.
- If your loved one needs constant attention, see if someone can be in your home while you nap.
- Set a timer or alarm if you’re worried about napping too long.
- If you can’t fall asleep, just rest quietly. Don’t drink coffee to keep you up as it will affect your ability to sleep at night.
Assistance and support
- If your loved one keeps you up at night, perhaps a family member can take a shift for a few nights so you can get some rest. Or you may be able to hire a professional caregiver to provide temporary respite. If possible, a 3-nights on, 3-nights off schedule is best.
- If the situation is becoming unmanageable, you may have to consider different care plan options such as live-in help or long-term care. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
- You could also look for a caregiver support group, in-person or online. Sometimes speaking with other people who understand your situation can help reduce stress and anxiety and lead to better sleep.
- Not all caregiver sleep problems are caused by stress or waking up at night. You may have an underlying physical problem that can be treated, such as sleep apnea or insomnia. Speak to your healthcare provider for advice.
“If you could use a break from caregiving or assistance in caring for a loved one, professional home care providers offer a wide range of services including: personal care, nursing, dementia care, respite care, meal preparation, and more”, says Jodi Marrin, Director of Marketing at Bayshore HealthCare. Home care services can be customized to meet the needs of your loved one”.