New technology revealed to help older people get a better night’s sleep

The new technology developed by university researchers is just one approach to helping older people cope with the problems of disturbed sleep patterns to be revealed at a conference of academics and specialists in London on Thursday.

The Somnia conference has been led by academics at the University of Surrey in conjunction with other academics including those working on new technology at the University of Bath.

Technology that can help older people get a more restful sleep is being developed by the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering.

From the list of potential technologies four novel devices were designed and constructed, and further developed following comments and feedback from tests with older people:

  • A pillow through which recorded music or spoken words could be played, or the sound from the TV or radio. These gentle sounds fade away after a while but the user can easily turn them on or off whenever they wanted through special controls. This both helps getting to sleep and also prevents TVs being played at high volumes in care homes.
  • A bedside tray that holds items needed during the night such as glasses or a drink, and which automatically illuminates when the user reaches out to it.
  • A novel stand-alone automatic bedroom light that both provides gentle background illumination if the user wishes to get out of bed, and low-level lighting when staff in a care home come into the bedroom. This enables the user to sleep in a dark room knowing lighting will be provided when they need it, and also helps care staff to provide checks without disturbance.
  • A hand-held hearing aid that can be placed near residents ears at night in care homes so that staff can talk to them without shouting or putting their hearing aids back in.

Professor Roger Orpwood, of the University of Bath, said: “Sleep is central to health and well-being, but as people get older, the quality of their sleep can deteriorate. Many older people are prescribed medications to help them sleep, but these can lead to problems, and we have been exploring the possible role that technology could play to help maintain and improve sleep. This is a really novel approach to supporting quality sleep in older people and the project has underlined the important role that technology could play.”

Other technologies explored included looking at integrated sensing systems that could automatically check during the night whether care home residents were breathing okay, or whether they were wet, etc without staff having to disturb them.

The University of Bath work is part of a large multi-university project SomnIA (Sleep in Ageing), led by the University of Surrey. The local work has built on the findings of other consortium members who have been investigating factors affecting the sleep of older people.

Professor Sara Arber from the University of Surrey, who leads the overall SomnIA project, said: “The researchers from Bath have undertaken innovative work developing important new devices to help older people sleep. Care home managers and staff are enthusiastic about these new devices that could play a major role in improving the sleep of residents in care homes.

“As well as the development of these new devices, the SomnIA project has shown there are other ways of improving older people’s sleep including through greater exposure to bright light, the use of self-help Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT-IT) and the creation  of a website resource on ‘Sleep problems in later life’.”

The one -day conference: “Sleep, Well-Being and Active Ageing: New Evidence for Policy and Practice” is being held on Thursday 28 October 2010, Church House Conference Centre, Westminster, London.