Sleep problems in later life

Dreams

When talking to people about their sleep, they very often told us about their dreams and nightmares. Several people had noticed a change in the amount or frequency of their dreams with most finding they dream a lot more now, or were actually more aware of dreaming now than they used to be. A few people said they had dreams when dozing in the early hours of the morning, whereas others, like Dessie, said that she dreamt shortly after going to sleep, when her husband woke her coming to bed.
Many people said their dreams contained people, places or experiences that they were connected to and familiar with. Some noticed that, from time to time, their dreams included memories of people who were no longer alive, and they often found comfort in that. But sometimes their dreams contained people from earlier periods in their lives, whom they barely knew, and they couldn’t think of an explanation for that.
Some people noticed there was a link between what they were thinking about or doing before going to bed and what they dreamt. Roy was very interested in dreams and kept a record of his dreams for a number of years. He has observed that many of his dreams take place in the countryside, and contain images of valleys and ravines. He realises this is probably because he always used to like taking long walks in this type of countryside. But Roy also remembers that when he retired, all his dreams were of him being at work, which rather irritated him as he was glad to have retired.
A few people that we spoke to believed they were dreaming more now because they were waking up more in the night, whether it was through pain, or needing to go to the toilet, or for some other reason. They believed that they were waking up in the middle of a dream, and a few people said they would often go back into the same dream, or one that had only slightly changed. Jacqui said she is able to manipulate her dreams. If she wakes up during a nice dream, she can go back to sleep and carry on with it, but if it is an unpleasant dream she tells herself to stop dreaming it.
Although they weren’t necessarily experiencing nightmares, people told us they sometimes experienced flashbacks to disturbing events during their dreams, which often woke them up. Most often the flashbacks took place immediately following the disturbing event, such as after a bereavement, but occasionally they happened much later.
Nightmares were experienced by several of the people we spoke to. Some people had periods in their lives when they had suffered nightmares or bad dreams, and believed this may be linked to times when they were feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Occasionally these nightmares were recurring ones, which people found particularly distressing.
Memories of the war often caused vivid dreams for those old enough to remember, although even those who were very young during the war found some of the noises, sights and smells still lingered with them years later. Those who have memories of the war spoke about how they used to dream about these memories when they were younger, and are finding that these memories often surface in their dreams now. John remembers seeing a German plane landing on an Anderson Shelter in the war, killing everyone, and the dreams he had then continued for some years, and sometimes resurface now.
Stress of all kinds was often thought to be the reason for bad dreams or nightmares, whether it was about past events, family or work, and the stress was often manifested in dreams where people were thwarted in doing things or looking for things that they couldn’t find. Having anxious dreams led to people waking up feeling anxious.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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