Sleep problems in later life

Partners, companions and pets

Several people we talked to were married or living with a partner, whilst others occasionally had other family members living with them. Those who lived with a partner often told us how sharing a bed with someone influenced both their sleep and their partner’s sleep.
Because they found sharing a bed with someone frequently disturbed their sleep, couples were often torn between sleeping in the same room as their partners or sleeping apart. When they slept apart, they missed the companionship but they also found that the need for sleep often outweighed the disadvantages of not being together.
Some people had decided that they would sleep much better if they slept in different rooms from their partners. Occasionally, this was because one of the partners had a long-term illness that made them restless in the night and they not only wanted to avoid disturbing their partner, but also wanted the freedom to be able to get up and move around in the night if necessary.
Other couples had found over the years that they each wanted different ways of sleeping, such as more or less light, heavier or lighter bedclothes, and so both partners slept better if they could sleep the way they preferred, albeit in a different room.  
Val sleeps in her own room usually and told us how once she went into her husband’s bedroom and woke him up because she was upset she couldn’t sleep, but explained that he very patiently made her a cup of tea and talked to her until she was ready to go to sleep again.
Several couples did choose to remain sleeping in the same room, even if there were spare bedrooms to go to. Sometimes, though, one of the partners might temporarily go to another room to get a better night’s sleep for themselves, or to avoid disturbing their partner. Peter’s wife explained that she would move into a different room only if she had a cough, so that she wouldn't disturb his sleep.
Those who still slept with their partners also talked about changing their bedtime or wake up time if their partners weren’t there for some reason. People also told us they might change their bedtime and wake up routines if they have someone else come to live with them, whether they wanted to or not.
Snoring was often an issue when we talked to people about their sleep, with them either saying their sleep was disturbed by their snoring partner, or that their partners told them they snored. Women, in particular, were embarrassed about their own snoring, believing it to be something that men are expected to do, not women, and they talked about hating the fact that they snored.
Men talked about their snoring in quite a matter of fact way, and were not too concerned that they snored, although they were conscious that they might be keeping their partners awake. Margaret noticed that her husband snored less when he lost weight after he retired.  Her husband has told her she snores, but she is only aware of that on the odd occasion when she has had a glass of wine. Ronald’s snoring was so bad he went to the doctor about it and was eventually diagnosed with sleep apnoea, for which he received treatment (see 'Health, illness, and pain').
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Snoring is common, affecting as many as 4 in 10 people. Apart from disturbing sleep, it is generally considered harmless however, snoring may be indicative of a more serious condition called sleep apnoea. If you have sleep apnoea you repeatedly stop breathing at intervals throughout the night and then wake up, and it is worth seeking treatment for this.
The loss of a partner also had an impact on how people slept. Those people who were involved in caring for their partners who were ill, particularly those who were terminally ill, talked of having extremely disturbed sleep (see 'Impact of bereavement and caring on sleep'), and often remarked that their sleep continued to be disturbed even after their partner had died. The death of a partner often triggered a change in sleep, with several people who had lost their partners noticing that their sleep was a lot more disturbed. This change in sleeping pattern after bereavement often continued long after their partners had died, and in some cases even several years later.
Other companions in the bedroom were pets, with cats and dogs often being allowed to sleep in the room and sometimes on the bed. Les explained that part of their bedtime routine starts with him going to bed, his wife coming in next, and then the cat will settle on their bed, and even though the cat snores in the night, they will not send her out of the room. Those people who shared a bed or bedroom with a pet often commented on how their sleep was disturbed by their pets.

Last reviewed October 2018.


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