Do you get enough sleep? 

I remember a time when it was suggested that older people need less sleep than younger ones. I don’t know where that idea originated, but it’s certainly not a theory supported by experts nowadays who say that all adults, whatever their age, require between seven and nine hours a night.  

However, I think the experience of most of us is that our sleep patterns do alter with the passing of the years. And usually not for the better.

There are all sorts of factors at play here.

Often, becoming single after divorce or bereavement wreaks havoc with our slumber, though it usually recovers to some extent in time.

But there’s also retirement or working fewer hours and therefore having a less pressurised schedule than once was the case.

Many pensioners nap quite a lot – sometimes late into the afternoon – and that can affect the quality of night-time sleep.

It’s common too for people to feel lacking in energy or fitness or to develop aches and pains all of which make them reluctant to exercise.

So, much of the routine that tired us out when we were younger has disappeared.   

Then there is stress, which most definitely disrupts sleep. However, it’s important to remember that psychiatrists say stress isn’t an illness as such, but a symptom. It is to the mind what pain is to the body.

So, just as pain tells us something isn’t right and we should seek medical advice, stress alerts us to difficulties that overload our brain, and need our attention. 

What stresses keep you awake? Perhaps you’re worried about money, your health, or by feeling overwhelmed as you care for a sick partner, or grandchildren? 

When we can identify this kind of situation, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to seek help in resolving or improving it. And when we take that responsibility, we tend to start sleeping better again.  

But sometimes, there seems to be nothing specific causing us problems, and yet we find ourselves in a phase where sleep isn’t dependable or restorative.  

What can we do if that’s the case? 

Experts suggest we need to look at our behaviour and environment and, if need be, make changes which will help us. One relatively new line of thought is that if we want better quality sleep at night, we should expose ourselves to more natural light in the daytime. 

Now why is that?  

It’s to do with the hormone melatonin which the brain produces in the evenings, helping us to unwind, as we prepare for the night ahead.

And current research suggests that melatonin is able to do its job more effectively – which results in improved sleep – if we access more natural light, particularly in the mornings.   

I really think it’s worth giving this a try. 

Meanwhile, there are other more traditional ways to create opportunities for a better night.  

Many experts recommend you eat your last meal of the day several hours before you go to bed.

They also suggest that when watching TV in the evening, you ensure you are at least six feet from the screen, and in terms of other screens that you stop using them, including your phone, an hour before bedtime. 

A hot bath can help you to become drowsy particularly if you add some soothing fragrant oil to it, such as lavender and chamomile.   

Very importantly too, sleep specialists advise us to make our bedrooms as dark as possible.  You might therefore want to think now about the early sunlight we’ll be having in a few months and upgrade your curtains before then. If it’s impossible for any reason to achieve total blackout where you sleep, do invest in an eye mask. 

Then there’s the question of relaxing once you’re in bed. You may love reading there. I certainly do. But if sleep is problematic, never get into anything with a complicated plot, and avoid scary psychological thrillers at all costs as they tend to weave themselves into nightmares or keep us awake.

Instead, read something reassuringly unimportant or familiar. A friend finds that perusing cookery books is the perfect recipe for a good night. And my late husband had a Just William book that he’d kept since childhood and if insomnia struck, he would dip into it and literally laugh himself to sleep.  

Finally, when you’ve put the light out, try five minutes or so of 7/11 breathing. All you do is inhale for seven counts and exhale for 11. The point of this is that you completely empty your lungs before breathing in again, which is very calming and peaceful. While you focus on your breath, your mind will stop going over the day’s events, and gradually quieten, so that you can slip into well-earned slumber. 

I know this may all seem rather an effort but given that it’s vital for our health to have proper rest, and that we spend a third of our lives sleeping, or attempting to do so, I believe it’s worth creating a framework that gives us a real chance of sleeping deeply – rather than just dive under the duvet and hope for the best.

Pleasant dreams!