For hypervigilant and overstressed caregivers, the thought of getting a solid eight hours of sleep each night may seem like a pipe dream. After all, it’s difficult enough for non-caregivers to get adequate sleep on a regular basis. Studies estimate that approximately 30 percent of the general population suffers from insomnia.
Age, emotional stress, depression, physical inactivity, chronic disease, and nontraditional or constantly changing sleep/wake cycles are all risk factors for sleep disorders like insomnia, so it should come as no surprise that so many family caregivers are sleep deprived. Those who are caring for dementia patients have an especially difficult time getting uninterrupted rest. One study found that 92 percent of dementia caregivers report poor sleep quality marked by short total sleep time, frequent awakenings and a long sleep-onset latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep).
It’s clear that caregiver sleep deprivation is a serious and widespread issue with the potential to cause daytime dysfunction, accidents and higher levels of caregiver burden. Many caregivers are bombarded with well-meaning advice urging them to take care of themselves, but these recommendations are often shrugged off. Financial ability, trust and safety issues, guilt, and care recipients themselves often prevent caregivers from receiving the help they need.
Caregiver respite can be hard to work out, but it should be a priority in any elder care plan. Take the following reminders to heart when making care decisions, especially those that affect your ability to sleep through the night.
6 Benefits of Sleep for Caregivers
- Reduced Stress Levels: AgingCare has an extensive selection of articles, questions and discussions devoted to caregiver stress for a reason. It is perhaps the single most common affliction of family caregivers, and it can be greatly affected by sleep quantity and quality. Studies show that, when you fail to get the necessary amount of sleep, your brain will hit the panic button, releasing excess cortisol and causing stress levels to climb. Conversely, when you’re stressed, it can be nearly impossible for you to fall and stay asleep no matter how tired you are. If you’re unable to control your stress levels, this can turn into a damaging sleep-stress cycle that is very hard to break.
- Magnified Memory: Are you ever worried that your loved one’s dementia might be rubbing off on you because you keep forgetting where you put your car keys? These minor lapses in memory may occur because you’re simply not getting enough sleep. Although the exact process remains elusive, scientists have concluded that sleep plays an essential role in processing and retaining new information. Memory can be split up into three processes: acquisition, consolidation and recall. While acquisition and recall can occur while a person is awake, consolidation—the process that makes a memory a permanent fixture in the mind—is believed to only occur while a person is asleep. Sleep deprivation also negatively affects higher-level cognitive functions like concentration and logical reasoning.
- Diminished Depression: The trials and tribulations of caregiving are enough to make anyone feel hopeless, but evidence indicates that sleep deprivation can also play a role in mood regulation. Inadequate sleep may increase a person’s risk for developing mood disorders like depression and anxiety. It can also intensify symptoms of depression in people who already suffer from this mental health condition. This connection partially explains why certain sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea, have also been linked to depression.
- Curbed Food Cravings: Do you find yourself reaching for junk food like ice cream or chips more and more often? According to the National Sleep Foundation, a lack of sleep contributes to comfort food cravings and overeating. After a poor night’s sleep, hormones that control hunger are knocked out of balance and a type of neurotransmitter is released that triggers cravings for sweet and salty foods. Over time, chronically sleep deprived caregivers who consume excess calories and fat can experience weight gain, blood sugar issues and high blood pressure.
- Heightened Health: Even if you can find the time and money to exercise and eat healthy, your efforts may be for naught if you aren’t getting adequate rest. Countless research studies have linked sleep deprivation with a variety of health problems, including obesity, increased risk of developing certain cancers, heart disease and inflammation.
- Decreased Anxiety: Too little sleep can make you go from a concerned caregiver to wound-up worrywart in no time. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, recently discovered that people who don’t get enough sleep at night can experience up to a 30 percent increase in anxiety levels the next day. Brain scans of participants in the study who received no sleep experienced reduced activity in areas of the brain that regulate anxiety and increased activity in emotional centers. The results point to deep sleep as a natural anxiety inhibitor.
The truth is that your wellbeing and that of your caregiver depend upon you meeting basic human needs like sleep. There are shortcuts and services available to grocery shop for you, help bathe your loved one and manage their medications, but the responsibility for getting quality rest falls on you. Whether you hire in-home care for a few hours a week or decide it’s time to place your loved one in long-term care, seek out regular respite care if only to help you get the shuteye you need. There is no substitute for sleep. Without it, you run a high risk of damaging important relationships, jeopardizing your career, developing caregiver burnout and running your own health into the ground.
Sources: Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978319/); Insomnia (https://medlineplus.gov/insomnia.html); Factors associated with sleep in family caregivers of individuals with dementia (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ppc.12307); Sleep and Disease Risk (http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/consequences/sleep-and-disease-risk); Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety (http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/consequences/sleep-performance-and-public-safety); Stressed to the max? Deep sleep can rewire the anxious brain (https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/11/04/deep-sleep-can-rewire-the-anxious-brain/)