Sleep problems in later life

Going to the doctor or chemist

Many of the people we talked to believed that they slept poorly because of their age, and therefore there was nothing that could be done about it. They also often had significant health problems, such as arthritis, diabetes or heart disease, for which they had to visit their GP on a regular basis and were prescribed a range of medications. Problems sleeping were therefore seen as less important, and because of this, they didn’t feel they should bother the doctor with disturbed sleep. Indeed, most people said that their sleep would need to be considerably worse for them to go to their doctor for help.
In most cases, people felt the trigger for them to go to the doctor about their sleep would be if they weren’t able to do all the things they needed to do during the day. Many people were very keen to keep busy and active during the day, not only doing household chores and gardening, but also maintaining an active social life. Their main concern was that if they slept very badly at night, or started needing to take naps during the day, that this would interfere with all their plans for the day, and on that basis they might go and see their doctor specifically for help with sleep. Several people who were retired, also commented that they might have considered going to the doctor about their sleep had they still been working, but now they were retired there was less pressure to get up at a certain time.
There was also a perception that because poor sleep was largely related to getting older, that it was not necessarily an illness, and therefore many older people thought it was not something they should see their doctor about. In these circumstances, they tended to either ignore their disturbed sleep, or go to the chemist instead and find alternative remedies. Others would prefer not to go to the doctor for any reason, if they could help it.
Some people did speak to their doctor about their poor sleep, but usually when they were already attending for some other reason relating to their health, and would mention their problems sleeping to the doctor in passing. Very few visited the doctor purely to ask for help with their sleep either because they believed the doctor would prescribe them sleeping tablets, which they didn’t want to take, or that their doctor would refuse to prescribe them tablets, and it would therefore be a waste of time going.
There were, however, a few people who did seek help from their doctor, either because of a particularly severe sleeping problem, such as sleep apnoea, or to help with difficult situations such as stress and bereavement. For these special circumstances their doctor usually prescribed sleeping tablets to be taken for a short period of time. Some people did take the sleeping tablets, but most chose not to because it made them too sleepy during the day (see 'Sleep medication, other medication and over the counter remedies'). Anne’s doctor suggested she changed the times she took some of her current medication and that seemed to help her sleep better.
People felt differently about going to the chemist for help with their sleep. Peter said he wouldn’t consider going to the chemist, because if he needed help with his sleep he believed the proper place to go would be his GP. Others thought the opposite, that they would rather go to the chemist and find an alternative to prescribed medication than bother their doctor with their problems sleeping. For people already taking a lot of prescribed medicines there was a concern that taking an over the counter medicine from a chemist may cause problems and react badly with their existing medication.

Last reviewed October 2018.


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