The Bible tells us (in both the Old and New Testaments) that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” God says it through his prophet Joel (Joel 2:28) in a vision of those “last days” when Israel shall be forgiven and restored. The Apostle Peter quotes it (Acts 2:17) when questioned about why Christians are speaking in tongues and filled with the holy spirit, suggesting that these are the “last days” predicted in the Book of Joel. In any case, it is interesting that it is the old who will dream, and the young who will see visions.
It has been an accepted phenomenon that the elderly dream less than the young, although this is usually measured in “dream recall” – meaning that (possibly) the old might dream as much but recall less than they used to. The major drop-off appears to be in middle age. Recent research also shows that young adults pay more attention to their dreams than older people. Time and time again it has been shown that when attention is paid to dreams, they start getting remembered more often. I have to say for myself, that since I started researching this topic, I have remembered more dreams. In fact, for months before this, I would have said that I remembered no dreams at all, although I often woke with the unsettled feeling that I had been having a “bad” dream.
When my mother was in the mid-level grip of dementia, I was convinced that she was having trouble telling the difference between dreams and reality. She would call me early in the morning with tales of boys who visited her apartment in the middle of the night and wreaked havoc in her kitchen. Or she would go into great detail about a boat trip she had gone on where the boat got marooned for hours. The first time that happened, I called her assisted living center to see if such a trip had happened – the center was on the side of a small lake – but, of course, the trip was a figment of my mother’s imagination. Or, more likely, it was a dream.
There is actually a term, oneirophrenia for a state in which a person becomes confused about the distinction between reality and dreams. Surely, we have experienced this to some extent when we woke shaking from a nightmare and had to spend a few moments convincing ourselves that everything was fine, and that there was no awful monster outside the window. In dementia, the confusion naturally worsens.
When I was younger, I had recurrent dreams that had to do with the pressure to get things done. One was academic: I had to take a test for which I was late; I ran through buildings encountering ridiculous obstacles and never actually made it to the exam before I woke up in a sweat. When I was a young mother, I had dreams about needing to find food for my children. In middle age I had dreams about wandering around in a big house, looking for my room. Looking for a room of one’s own, perhaps? Long after I retired, I had dreams about audits and the end of the fiscal year, and about not being able to find a parking spot and missing a meeting. Anxieties about responsibilities seemed to be played out in my dreams. Note that I said played out, and not worked out. My dreams never contained solutions or advice, and only offered awareness of what my subconscious was struggling with. Most of these anxiety dreams have disappeared as I grow old – or perhaps I have stopped remembering them.
Dreams are often used as literary devices in movies and books; in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the ghost convinces Mrs. Muir that their entire relationship was just a dream. Young Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in the hills and dreams until he is old, thus escaping a nagging wife and other responsibilities. Alice in Wonderland and The Christmas Carol are simply the records of the dreams of a very young person and a very old person. Alice has an adventure; Scrooge confronts his past and his probably dreary future. Is this the difference between younger dreams and older dreams? Is the Biblical promise that the old will “dream dreams” a promise that they will be renewed in some way?
And, on a more basic level – if dreams are manifestations of the struggles that are taking place subconsciously, what struggles do the elderly manifest? One research psychiatrist says that our dreams keep up with our needs:
Older adults tend to dream more about creative works, legacies and enduring concerns, while the dreams of dying people are filled with numbers of supernatural agents, other-worldly settings and images of reunions with a loved one who has died. Dreams that transport the child into the social world of his caretakers during early life gently escort the dreamer into the arms of his loved ones when life is nearing an end. Dreams accompany us literally from the cradle to the grave.
This is a gentle interpretation, though, and doesn’t consider the effects of dementia or the fact that some people don’t want to be reunited with their caretakers. One can hope, though, for some kind of comforting dream sat the end of life..
I am no expert in the analysis of dreams, but – as I said above – dreams will respond to attention. Think about your dreams. Intend to remember them and see what they tell you.
Meanwhile, you might read my story, “The Widow’s Dream,” which gives an example of how literal interpretation of dreams might be harmful, and skillful creation of dreams can solve some problems.