You probably suspected it, but studies confirm it: The vast majority of dementia caregivers are suffering from sleep deprivation. That's bad news for all involved. Learn more about the study, plus expert-vetted tips to help caregivers get healthier sleep.
Without good sleep, getting through the day is a challenge — especially in stressful times. Beyond the day-to-day, unrestful sleep is linked to hypertension, mood disorders and dementia. Sleep disruption is also a factor in predicting caregivers’ stress, and their likelihood of placing a loved one into long-term care. And in a research study of dementia caregivers in Australia, scientists saw that 94 percent of people caring for a loved one with dementia are sleep-deprived.
“Enabling people living with dementia to stay at home, rather than transfer to long-term care is the optimal outcome for many families, but this can’t be at the detriment of the caregiver’s own wellbeing,” Dr. Aisling Smyth of New Edith Cowan University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, and an author on the study, said in a news release about the 2020 research. “Therefore, to support the person living with dementia to remain at home, preserving sleep and maintaining caregiver health is vital.”
Smyth and colleagues investigated the sleep patterns and disturbances among more than 100 people caring for a loved one with dementia, finding that among the 94 percent of participants who were poor sleepers, 84 percent had difficulty falling asleep, and 72 percent reported difficulty maintaining sleep. Stress was the most significant predictor of overall sleep quality.
Good mental health is impossible without sleep
Science tells us that sleep is crucial for maintaining brain health. Just like diet and exercise, sleep is the foundation of health and wellbeing. Past research shows that the brain’s waste management system known as the glymphatic system largely operates when people are in deep sleep, getting rid of waste and cycling nutrients through the brain. Not only is sleep necessary for people to feel alert, but it also appears to keep people’s brain healthy in the long-term.
“To support the person living with dementia to
remain at home, preserving sleep and
maintaining caregiver health is vital.”
So, just as you try to make sure your loved ones are sleeping, you should be too, according to dementia caregiving expert Teepa Snow. If caregivers are feeling stressed or worn out, Snow recommends that they ask themselves: How well am I sleeping? and How much am I sleeping? A person needs “at least six hours of decent, good-quality sleep, and if not, it’s time to look at that,” Snow believes, because lack of sleep could indicate health issues you, the caregiver, are experiencing.
“We don’t always recognize [that] we might be having issues with sleep apnea, we might be having issues with sleep, which is impacting our brain potentially and causing brain changes,” she said.
Because caregiver burnout is real, having a support system is crucial, especially due to the amount of stress involved in the task at hand. There are ways to ease the stress and burden of caregiving. These include making time for yourself, considering meditation and other stress-reduction approaches, joining a support group, and staying physically active. In both of those cases, caregivers not feeling they have enough time for self care is often the barrier. Experts often urge caregivers to seek help and support.
Authors of the recent study pointed to the importance of accessing respite services. After all, respite care like day care centers can provide temporary relief for primary caregivers.
Experts also recommend creating a routine for a loved one with dementia, which is not only helpful to their mood and quality of life — it can also help you carve out more time for yourself. They also urge caregivers to take care of themselves, whether it’s sleeping a little longer, chatting with a friend on the phone or listening to a podcast.
Asking for support when you need it
Another key step to reducing stress, fighting burnout, and taking care of oneself is to ask for help at the right moment.
“If you can’t find something you like every day, your primitive brain will tell you that you are not thriving,” Snow told Being Patient. “Frankly, if you have no ability to thrive, you will not survive long as a carer. You will start to burn out and deteriorate. If you’re already there, which any carers are, it’s time to recognize, ‘I could use some support.’ If you have to keep going, you definitely want some different support in place to make this work.” In a Being Patient Live Talk, Snow three key questions to ask if you’re evaluating whether caregiving burnout is too much.
Helping to enable healthier sleeping habits for caregivers
Meanwhile, researchers from the recent study are now working on a program that will support dementia caregivers in achieving healthier sleeping habits.
“The aim will be to help them get to sleep quicker and have more efficient and effective sleep,” she said. “We will also measure whether better sleep improves their ability to provide care.”
The program plans to use cognitive behavioral therapy to provide caregivers techniques to manage their stress and improve their overall quality of sleep.
UPDATED 13 April 2023: This article from October 29, 2020 has been updated with new information to help our readers.