The sleepover hangover is a telltale sign of summer in our home.

Teenagers up and out way too late with friends, hopefully staying out of trouble and then crashing until 2 p.m. the next day.

Little ones who are just plain exhausted after multiple evenings with cousins.

And parents just trying to keep it all together… “Now who is actually here at home tonight?” “Do we have any extras to care for?”  

These are real questions we ask each other most evenings. 

Sleep is important. We know this. 

Have we considered as caregivers the impact of sleep on those we serve daily?

As we age, achieving restful, uninterrupted sleep becomes increasingly challenging. For the elderly, sleep problems can be amplified due to factors such as chronic illness, medication side effects, or even the psychological stress of major life changes. 

While there are many conventional interventions to improve sleep quality, including sleep medications and sleep hygiene education, an unexpected player has emerged in this arena: occupational therapy.

Occupational therapists can help people improve their ability to perform tasks in their living and working environments. While traditionally linked with aiding physical or developmental problems, occupational therapy has increasingly been recognized for its potential to improve sleep quality, particularly among the elderly.

Our occupational therapists, as we are aware, are skilled in engaging our patients and residents in meaningful activities (aka occupations) to improve people’s health and well-being. 

Given that sleep is an essential daily occupation that many elderly individuals struggle with, occupational therapists can play a significant role in promoting better sleep habits.

How, you ask?

Firstly, occupational therapists can help the elderly establish regular sleep routines. Aging often brings about lifestyle changes that may disrupt sleep schedules, such as retirement, changes in physical health or the loss of a spouse. Occupational therapists are experts at analyzing and modifying routines. They can provide practical strategies to establish regular sleeping and waking times, enhancing the body’s natural circadian rhythm.

Secondly, occupational therapy addresses physical issues that can interfere with sleep. Conditions like arthritis, chronic pain or respiratory disorders are common in the elderly and can significantly impact sleep quality. Occupational therapists can provide personalized exercise programs to manage pain, improve flexibility, and enhance overall physical health, thereby indirectly improving sleep. They also can offer advice on adaptive equipment, such as orthopedic pillows or adjustable beds, to increase comfort during sleep.

Next, environment is key, and occupational therapists can evaluate and modify the sleep environment. Many elderly individuals face difficulties such as getting in and out of bed, adjusting bedding, or moving around at night. Occupational therapists can suggest environmental modifications like installing grab bars, using night lights, or rearranging furniture to create a safer, more accessible sleep environment.

Furthermore, occupational therapy can help manage mental health issues that impede sleep. Many elderly individuals suffer from anxiety, depression or stress, all of which can significantly affect sleep. Occupational therapists can teach coping strategies, such as relaxation techniques or mindfulness practices, to manage these conditions. The subsequent reduction in mental stress can contribute to improved sleep quality.

Finally, occupational therapists can provide education to patients, family members and loved ones on sleep hygiene. They can offer guidance on various aspects such as limiting caffeine, creating a conducive sleep environment, and incorporating relaxing pre-bedtime activities. Education on sleep hygiene can empower the elderly to make informed decisions that positively impact their sleep health.

By focusing on the individual’s daily routines, physical health, environment, mental health and sleep hygiene, occupational therapists can make a significant difference in enhancing sleep quality among our seniors.

In closing, sleep and sleep routine matters to us and to those we serve daily. With that said, I am off to my evening routine of counting heads in bed here at the Kinder house. One downstairs, one upstairs, one missing… two at sleepovers, and two furry friends ready to call it a day!

Good rest to you all.

Renee Kinder, MS, CCC-SLP, RAC-CT, is Executive Vice President of Clinical Services for Broad River Rehab. Additionally, she serves as a member of American Speech Language Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Healthcare and Economics Committee, is a member of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine community faculty and is an advisor to the American Medical Association’s Current Procedural Terminology CPT® Editorial Panel. She can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.

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