Sleep problems in later life

Describing current sleep

When we talked to people about their sleep, as well as asking them what a good night’s sleep was, we also asked them to describe what a typical or normal night’s sleep was for them at the moment. Whilst most people had a set routine, including a particular time to go to bed and to get up, a few chose not to have a routine, either because, like Richard, they never had a routine, or because they didn’t want to reach retirement and still live their lives by the clock. Those who worked part time usually had a variable routine according to whether it was their day for working or not.

Most people had some form of difficulty with their sleep, ranging from taking a long time to get to sleep, waking up a lot in the night, waking up early in the morning, and a combination of any or all of these.

Taking time to get to sleep
The time it took for people to go to sleep ranged from almost immediately to over an hour, with one or two people finding it takes more than two hours to get sleep on some nights. When people had been out late in the evening socialising they found it harder to switch off and to unwind for sleep. To help them get to sleep, people said they tried lots of different tactics, such as going to bed at a later time, avoiding drinking coffee, or alcohol before bed, or making sure they don’t sleep during the daytime (see 'Strategies for good sleep').
Margaret believes her problem getting to sleep may be caused by the fact that she dozes off in front of the television at night, and then by the time she has woken up again, got washed and dressed ready for bed, she is wide awake again.
Waking up a lot in the night
Most people woke up in the night, at least once, and for some people several times, either to go to the toilet, because of pain, or some other reasons (see 'Health, illness and pain'). Carol told us she could easily be up six times in the night to go to the toilet. A few people just had the occasional night where they woke up a lot during the night.
Waking early in the morning
Whilst most people complained of having difficulty getting to sleep and waking up in the night, a few people did experience waking very early and not being able to get back to sleep. Anne told us that if she woke at 4 am she didn’t expect to be able to get back to sleep at all and will eventually get up. But those who did wake up early usually didn’t find it was a problem and dealt with it in a variety of ways, either by getting up straight away and getting on with things they needed to do, or taking a cup of tea back to bed, or just dozing in bed and waiting until it was bit later.
Some people experienced a combination of several different kinds of sleeping difficulties, but were more disturbed by one kind than another.
The News and sleep routines
Nearly all of the people we spoke to told us they had a great interest in what was happening in the world and often had the news on either their radios or televisions throughout the day, with some people telling us that if they wake up in the night they may watch the television news, or listen to the World Service News on the radio. Several people also would not go to bed until after one of the news programmes at night, usually the 10 o’clock news or Newsnight, although some found it difficult to stay awake for all of the news. Others would wake up in the morning and doze in bed listening to the morning news. Peter wakes at about 6 to 6.30 am every morning and will stay in bed until after the 8 o’clock news on the radio.
Not everyone felt they had problems sleeping. Some had had periods of bad sleep during their lives and were sleeping better now. Others felt that although they were aware they weren’t sleeping very much, they were quite happy with the amount they slept because they felt fine in the morning and could easily get on with what they needed to do during the day.

 Last reviewed October 2018.


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