Experts at the University of Surrey discovered that many older people felt that they may be branded lazy for taking afternoon naps so they tried hard to avoid nodding off.
But the occasional nap can make older people more able to lead a fully active life by giving them enough energy to take part in recreational and social activities.
Susan Venn, of the Department of Sociology said: “Sleep is central to health and well-being, but as people get older, the quality of their sleep can deteriorate. They shouldn’t feel guilty or think themselves lazy for having a nap.”
The new research also found that as older people often have more disturbed sleep patterns at night they try to avoid taking a nap during the day only to fall asleep watching television during the early evening. As a result they may end up feeling exhausted..
Another finding was that older men and women lose sleep because of having to get up several times a night to go to the toilet, so they may cut down on drinking fluids during the day believing this will help, even though they may become dehydrated.
One interviewee, called Anne, aged 71, from Berkshire, said “My main sleep problem is waking up in the early hours of the morning and not being able to get back to sleep.
“I sometimes find on a particularly bad night that I’m awake for three or four hours. I don’t want to disturb my husband by tossing and turning, and trying to get back to sleep, so I tend to get up and do the housework, watch DVDs or use the computer.
“Sleep at the moment is a disappointment I suppose, because I feel I’ve improved my life style by doing all the things, diet, exercise and all this, and I’d hoped that the sleep would improve more than it has.”
Susan Venn, of the Department of Sociology, a researcher on the project, explained: “Many of the older people we talked to described how disturbed their sleep was, especially in terms of waking up a lot in the night.
“Anne was like many of the older people we spoke to in that being active during the day was very important to them, and if they slept badly, it impacted on how much could be achieved.
“Many older people are prescribed medications to help them sleep, but research has shown that sleeping medication may impact on the lives of older people, such as increasing the risk of falls.”
The new research called “Understanding poor sleep in the community” is linked to an academic conference on sleep issues among older people, based on the SomnIA (Sleep in Ageing) project (www.somnia.surrey.ac.uk).
The research by academics at the University of Surrey, along with colleagues at other institutions, tried to find ways of improving the sleep patterns of older people.
Researchers talked to 62 older men and women who are living in their own homes about their poor sleep patterns and three key findings emerged:
Whilst many older people do not sleep well and feel tired during the day, they often do not want to take a nap because they believe daytime sleeping is a sign of laziness.
Older people often get up in the night to go to the toilet, sometimes even several times a night. So, counter to current advice to drink plenty of fluids during the day, they may often severely restrict how much they drink.
Older men and women would rather not visit their doctor for problems with their sleep, largely because of a concern they will be prescribed some form of sleeping medication. Keeping busy and active is important to many older people and they are concerned that sleeping medication may take away that control. Women, more than men, tended to explore alternative treatments and remedies for poor sleep, such as over the counter remedies and herbal medicines.
The research is linked to a conference called ‘Sleep, Well-Being and Active Ageing: New Evidence for Policy and Practice’ to be held on Thursday, October 28th 2010, Church House Conference Centre, Westminster, London.