Uncover the Causes & Coping Methods for Dementia-Related Sleep Problems


As a caregiver of a loved one with dementia, getting enough sleep is crucial to staying healthy and energized in order to provide the care your loved one needs. However, if your loved one isn’t sleeping well, chances are that neither are you.

Sleep problems are a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. A degenerative neurological disease, dementia gradually deteriorates the cells in the brain. When the parts of the brain responsible for releasing sleep-inducing chemicals begin to deteriorate, the effects on the person’s sleep patterns may change.

There are other possible causes besides dementia for a loved one’s sleep problems, including underlying health conditions and side effects of medication. According to Nancy Clanton, Community Relations Director at Tuscan Gardens® of Venetia Bay, a senior living community in Venice, FL, determining the cause is necessary to treating the problem. “Dementia can affect a person’s sleep in different ways,” says Clanton, “from causing them to be drowsy during the day or waking up at night to restless irritation known as sundowning. If you figure out what symptoms or side effects are causing sleep issues, you can take steps to eliminate them as much as possible.”

Possible Causes & Contributing Factors of Sleep Problems

Since both sleep and dementia are so neurologically complex, it can be quite difficult to determine just what is causing a specific problem. If your loved one is experiencing ongoing sleep issues, always discuss it with their doctor. However, it doesn’t hurt to try some non-invasive solutions in the meantime if you have an idea of what’s triggering your loved one’s sleep problems.

The Alzheimer’s Association lists several factors that could be contributing to your loved one’s dementia-related sleep problems:

  • Exhaustion, either mental or physical
  • Disturbance in the person’s internal “body clock”
  • Changes in lighting at night, which create shadows and could cause a person with dementia to misinterpret their surroundings, becoming afraid or confused
  • Picking up on a caregiver’s stress or agitation as they become tired
  • Disorientation from the inability to separate dreams from reality
  • Side effects from medications
  • Other health conditions, such as depression, restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea

Depending on which factors or dementia symptoms tend to cause your loved one’s sleep problems, you can address the issue and find ways to reduce the disturbance it causes. Experts advise trying non-drug solutions before giving your loved one medicinal treatment to help them cope with their sleep problems.

Dangers of Dementia & Sleeping Pills

Since it can be hard to know the exact cause of your loved one’s sleep problems, over-the-counter sleeping pills and other medications could make their situation worse. Even prescribed medications that are used for sleep can be problematic and cause serious side effects in people with dementia. According to the study “Current Treatments for Sleep Disturbances in Individuals with Dementia” done by Cynthia L. Deschenes, MSN, CCRN, and Susan M. McCurry, PhD, the medications most prescribed for sleep issues cause increased daytime sleepiness, confusion, sedation, dizziness and increased cognitive impairment.

If holistic approaches fail or symptoms are increasingly severe, your loved one’s doctor may decide that medication might be necessary after all. This kind of treatment should be given slowly at low doses and, if possible, stopped once your loved one returns to a successful sleep schedule.

7 Ways to Cope with Dementia-Related Sleep Problems

If your loved one’s doctor has ruled out health conditions or side effects as the cause of their sleep disturbances, you can try to help your loved one cope by avoiding triggers for sleeplessness. Before turning to sleeping pills, try the following techniques to help your loved one enjoy a restful night’s sleep:

  • Keep a consistent schedule. As much as possible, have your loved one wake up, go to bed and eat meals at the same times each day. This can help them maintain a consistent internal “clock” that tells their body when it’s time for sleep.
  • Stay active during the day. Schedule appointments and activities in the morning and afternoon so your loved one is less likely to rest all day. Limit napping and encourage daily exercise (at least four hours before bed) to help them sleep easier at night.
  • Seek exposure to sunlight. Take your loved one outside in the morning, either by going for a walk or gardening. Sunlight and other sources of light therapy can help your loved one associate daylight with being awake.
  • Avoid stimulants. Keep your loved one away from nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and large dinners. Serve their biggest meal at noon and keep dinner simple.
  • Be mindful of the lighting. If your loved one becomes upset due to dim light and shadows, keep their home well-lit at night, installing nightlights in the bedroom and hallways. On the other hand, light can affect our ability to stay asleep. Control the lighting according to your loved one’s symptoms.
  • Limit environmental triggers. In the evening hours, try to eliminate the factors that trigger your loved one’s sleep problems or sundowning behaviors, such as watching TV, having visitors, doing chores, loud noises, etc.
  • Make surroundings peaceful. Make sure the temperature of your loved one’s bedroom isn’t too hot or too cold. Ensure they are comfortable by treating any pain and making sure they’ve gone to the bathroom before bed. Provide security objects if you can.

Helping You Both Sleep Soundly

“Addressing a loved one’s dementia-related sleep problems requires a great deal of understanding about the disease,” Clanton explains. “If you could use some help coping with your loved one’s sleep issues, the care team at Tuscan Gardens of Venetia Bay is happy to share their expertise and advice.

“We find with our memory care residents that the key to a good night’s sleep is activity throughout the day. We offer a full range of amenities, programs and scheduled activities to help our residents stay active and engage their minds. When our residents enjoy a purposeful day filled with things they love, they are often able to rest easy.”

If you would like to learn more about keeping your loved one engaged throughout the day or helping them sleep at night, contact a Tuscan Gardens associate today.

The Art of Living

At Tuscan Gardens® of Venetia Bay, we’ve mastered the art of living. We’ve perfected the balance of personalized support and an uplifting lifestyle, helping our residents experience independence, joy and meaning every day.

Offering supportive independent living, assisted living and memory care services for families in Venice, Florida, Tuscan Gardens of Venetia Bay was founded with one simple, yet profound goal – to create a community worthy of our parents. In all we do, we are guided by the principles of family, culture and engagement, working to represent the remarkable way of life our families deserve.

Luxury, intimacy, opportunity, passion and beauty combine to create what the Italians call sprezzatura – a culture of effortless elegance. The essence of our community is made up not only of mere aesthetics, but an artfully designed lifestyle to bring out the best of what each day has to offer. From dedicated care that respects residents’ individuality and dignity to a lifestyle that nurtures their love of life, Tuscan Gardens was built to be more than just a residence, but a place to call home.

To learn more about our comfortable, elegant community, contact us today!