Swift: While you weren't sleeping — catching some z's grows more elusive with age

Tammy Swift, columnist. The Forum
Tammy Swift, columnist. The ForumThe Forum

It’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep.

So I’m on the couch, watching an old Japanese movie titled — ironically enough — “The Bad Sleep Well.” That’s so wrong, I think. It should be called: “The Young Sleep Well. The Old Sleep Badly.”

It’s true. I used to be an Olympic-caliber sleeper. While traveling together through Europe years ago, my former sister-in-law once marveled over how I literally nodded off two minutes after my head hit the pillow. I slept long, deeply and often.

Little did I realize what a luxury good sleep is, when you are youthfully equipped with estrogen, peace of mind and a nimble musculoskeletal system. Sleep was just something my younger self took for granted, along with the ability to make adequate collagen and to always remember where I parked my car.

Then along came my wacky new friend, menopause. In my 20s and 30s, I routinely burrowed beneath a veritable quilt lasagna of sheets, comforters and quilts. Now, I can keep the window open in December and cover myself with a Kleenex, yet still wake up covered in sweat.

The plummet in estrogen has caused other problems. I have less energy overall, so I rely more on caffeine during the day. (Naturally, this doesn’t help my nighttime slumber.) My joints hurt more, and I’ve developed sciatic pain. Once awake, I ruminate, which makes it harder to fall back asleep.

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To make matters worse, my dog is also aging. She can rarely make it through the night without at least one trip to the water bowl or bathroom. I’m pretty sure “good sleep hygiene” doesn’t include clutching a wriggling dog while stumbling through a darkened living room and smacking your shin into coffee tables.

A few weeks ago, all of my siblings were home for a family wedding. Since my mom started running a bed-and-breakfast, it has literally become her business to see how well people sleep in her house. It’s the best way to find out if a bed is too soft or too firm, or a room is too noisy, too cold or too hot.

So, innocently enough, she asked us how well we slept the night before. “I slept pretty well,” Bertha reported. “I can sleep as long as I remember to bring my Tempur-Pedic pillows with cooling technology, my lumbar support and my sleep machine and aromatherapy mister. I need to do my stretches every night so I don’t have lower back spasms. Oh, and I always need to sleep on the left side of the bed, so I can stick my foot out — the one I had surgery on — from under the blankets.”

Mabel nodded in agreement. “I’ve learned I can’t have any caffeine after 1 p.m.,” she said. “The room must be absolutely dark and quiet, so I’ve relocated Grover (her husband) to the laundry room at night, because he snores. I snore, too, but that doesn’t seem to bother me as much as long as I prop myself up with pillows so that I am actually sitting up while sleeping. Normally, that posture would keep me awake, but it really helps if I take two Benadryl, three jumbo calcium chews and a magnesium tablet. If all else fails, there’s Ambien.”

Mom listened quietly for a while before finally speaking. “Well, I had trouble sleeping for the longest time because of my hip. That has gotten so much better since the surgery and the physical therapy, but now the other hip is hurting. So now, on my chiropractor’s advice, I sleep flat on my stomach, with no pillow under my head but a bolster pillow under my ankles.”

She sighed and continued. “Come to think of it, this isn’t new. Before this problem, I had ankle and foot pain. And before that, hot flashes. When you kids were in college, I stayed up all night worrying about how you were doing and whether you would get home safely for Thanksgiving. When you were in high school, I worried if you were driving on icy roads or didn’t get home by curfew. When you were kids, you were always popping into our bed because you were sick or had nightmares. And when you were babies, of course, I got up every few hours to feed and change you.

“Come to think of it, really, the last time I enjoyed a really long, deep, uninterrupted night of sleep was sometime in 1959,” she added.

Oh dear. It’s true.

The old may sleep badly, but moms sleep even worse.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.