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Elderly people often complain of either having difficulty in falling asleep; or of sleeping poorly – and consequently of waking tired and unrefreshed… Why should this be? Add to this the fact that we are often subjected to claims by seemingly credible sources espousing the need for a full uninterrupted 8-hours of sleep, and it becomes obvious why many seniors experience concerns in respect of their sleep patterns.

How much sleep do we really need!

In his book, ‘The Ageing Brain’ Lawrence Whalley offers the following possible explanation. He explains how… ”a newborn premature baby, who is comfortable, will spend almost 24-hours continuously sleeping. Later as awareness of hunger and thirst is acquired the baby will wake to feed and then return quickly to sleep. Across the lifespan, the time spent sleeping gradually reduces.” The medical Journal, ‘The Lancet’ states that the younger people are, the more sleep they require… and other research has shown that young adults need on average seven and three-quarter hours, reducing to six hours or less amongst those aged over 50.

And the quality of sleep amongst elderly people?

Sleep EEGs have indicated that there are four stages of sleep I.e. Stage 1 (drowsiness); Stage 2 (light sleep); and Stages 3 & 4 (deep sleep). During deep sleep, the rhythms of electrical change across the surface of the brain gradually slow down into what is known as ‘slow-wave sleep’. Research indicates that seniors spend much less time in deep ‘slow-wave sleep’ and proportionately more time in light sleep – they are also more easily aroused. So on the face of it, this would tend to indicate that they do suffer from poorer sleep than their younger counterparts – but is this indeed so?


A possible explanation

Could it simply be that the length and depth of our sleep is simply geared to growth, development and survival; that in younger years, it is the fuel that replenishes used resources such as physical and mental energy – a bit like recharging our batteries? Whereas in later years we tend to expend less physical energy, and even our mental resources no longer rely on cognitive skills alone – as they are bolstered by the reserve resources of experience and simply savvy! Do we now have the benefit of practical knowledge and common sense? We no longer need to waste diminishing energy reserves on solving each problem as though it was totally new – as though we had not previously encountered it! Do we now have the added advantage of being able to draw-down from the memory banks of experience, accumulated over decades?



A possible manner in which to improve our quality of sleep

The following suggestions are based on my own sleep practices; and as such, I cannot guarantee that they will work for you, but perhaps they are worth considering?


A polyphasic approach

The majority of people are monophasic sleepers, meaning they get all of their rest in one long sleeping period – typically at night. Polyphasic sleep on the other hand refers to a sleep pattern, where one sleeps when one feels tired, or one sleeps for shorter periods, a number of times in any 24-hour period. The most popular pattern involves a longer “core” sleep anywhere from 90-minutes to six hours, supplemented by 20-minute naps during the day.


I practice polyphasic sleep patterns i.e. I sleep for three hours until about 1 AM, then get up and work on my books and research for approximately four hours – until approximately 5 AM, when I return to bed to sleep until 7 AM. During the day I may cat-nap once or twice for no more than one hour. So in total, on average I sleep for six to seven hours per day. What are the advantages of this sleep pattern? Four hours of uninterrupted time in the middle of the night to read books, paint, practice your hobbies – i.e. to pursue your passions.  


Don’t try to ‘force’ changes in your sleep patterns

Normally I have found that when a change is forced upon me, for example when sleeping over, whilst away visiting friends; and being unable to get up during the night, I sleep through – I wake up the next morning feeling extremely tired… almost hung-over! (And I never use an alarm clock to wake up during the night).


A bed is for sleeping in (especially when older).

By reading in bed; or watching TV in bed, or even just lying in bed struggling to fall asleep – you are training your brain to believe that bed is not for sleeping in. Get up and find something to do, until you once more feel tired enough to return to bed – to sleep!

Henry Spencer

Author, gerontologist and speaker on retirement matters

E-mail: halfmens@telkomsa.net / Phone: 072-514 0913