Since ancient times, the Ojibwa Indians understood that restful sleep was a good thing. They made dreamcatchers of twigs, sinew, and feathers for their newborn children.
Then they hung them above the cradleboard to give infants peaceful dreams. The belief was that “good” dreams descended down through the feathers to the sleeping infant. “Bad” dreams were trapped in the web, and evaporated like the morning dew when the sun rose in the morning.
Unfortunately, dreamcatchers may not be effective when it comes to persons afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The disease is characterized by frequent sleep disturbances. This affects not only the person with dementia, but also the caregiver. The disease seems to “reset” the internal biological clock of an Alzheimer’s patient. They may stay up all night. They may wake up to go to the bathroom and become disoriented or confused. They may wander through the house, or try to go out. When they are restless during the night, they will feel lethargic during the day.
Sleep is vital for keeping our brains healthy and disease-free. Researchers tell us that adults (26-64) need seven to nine hours of sleep, while older adults (65+) need an average of seven to eight hours of sleep each night. While we sleep, the brain is busy “flushing” away the toxins that have built up during the day, including toxins that form Alzheimer plaques. Cerebrospinal fluid that is normally outside of the brain begins to re-circulate back into and through the brain, along the outside of blood vessels.
It is important when your loved one can’t sleep, to try to determine if they are in pain, or have a bladder infection, or prostate problem. Some medications also have side effects that cause sleeplessness. Use caution when it comes to giving your loved one sleeping pills. These pills may counteract the side effect of other medications. Sedatives can exacerbate your loved one’s confusion and increase their risk of falling.
Here are several tips to help your loved one get adequate sleep. What you do during the day affects how your loved one will sleep at night. It is important that you establish a daytime routine complete with physical activity and exercise. Exercise will improve sleep quality and quantity. Just avoid or decrease evening exercise, especially close to bedtime.
Keep your loved one busy, active, and awake during the day with social, mental, and physical activities. Adult day centers are wonderful facilities for keeping people with Alzheimer’s active.
Expose your loved one to natural or artificial light ideally between 6 AM and 9 AM. This helps reset their “internal” clock. Encourage your loved one to get an hour of bright sunlight and fresh air every day, if possible.
Avoid giving your loved one foods and beverages that contain caffeine, and restrict sweets and alcohol. Serve dinner early, and offer a light meal or snack before bedtime.
Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule and routine: the same bedtime, same wake-up time, same nap time each day. Moderate and limit daytime naps to thirty minutes, preferably before 2 PM. Nighttime routines, like drinking warm milk or brushing teeth signal that it’s time for bed. One of my Mom’s routines at bedtime was to slather Oil of Olay on her face after washing it.
Sometimes people with Alzheimer’s will not sleep in their beds. They prefer to sleep on a favorite chair or on the couch. If necessary, allow them to sleep there. It is better than having them not sleep at all.
Leave a small night light on in their bedroom. Also leave the bathroom light on and maintain a clear pathway. Get your loved one up once at night if toileting is necessary. Speak softly and quietly, in a reassuring tone of voice.
Now, here are a few recommendations for your own restorative sleep. Don’t try to do a lot of chores before bedtime. Don’t drink a beverage with caffeine for six to eight hours before bed. Budget a “pre-sleep” period of at least a half hour before sleeping to turn off the TV, radio, or computer before you have lights out. Turn the clock away from your bed. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. The best sleeping position for brain health is on your side. Lastly, don’t allow yourself to worry about problems just before falling asleep. Write a blessing of the day in a journal, and think positive thoughts.
Let me end with a lovely quote by Maya Angelou: “Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.” Sleep tight and have a good night!
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I wrote a poem about “Bedtime.” It is included in my published memoir, Elegy for Mom. I’d like to share it with you.
I came early one evening
to check on Mom after her illness.
She looked so sweet, so frail in bed
in her soft pink nightgown.
The roles seem reversed
as I tucked her in,
pulled up the covers,
and gently kissed her on her cheek.
“Good night, sleep tight!
Don’t let the bed bugs bite…
May the angels take you
to the realm of pleasant dreams,
my dear, sweet mother.”
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The fairytale opera, Hansel and Gretel, by 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck, has a beautiful bedtime benediction put to music. It invokes the angels to look after the two young children while they sleep. My parents loved listening to a young singer, Charlotte Church. Here she is singing this “Evening Prayer,” from Act 2: https://youtu.be/yM_RwW0MYGA
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If you would like to make your own dreamcatcher, here is a six-minute tutorial from SeaLemon: https://youtu.be/UbgZ-uDAmAM