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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.
 

Mike not only remembers dreaming frequently when he was a child, but still remembers what he...

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Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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And you mentioned about your dreams, do you want to tell me about that?
 
It might be total, it may be completely utter fallacy, but I have just got the feeling that I’m dreaming more again. And I can remember. I can’t remember a lot of the detail, but I can remember as a pretty small child, I can remember that I used to have quite vivid dreams which may possibly be to do with, because you talk about ‘41, ‘45, I mean obviously probably when I was a baby or an infant there was the odd air raid going on and things like that or the sound of aircraft engines and I can remember that sort of thing cropping up in dreams when I was small. And I suppose that must be, it must have been quite important for me to be aware of it now. And I know that is certainly not in the sort of the things that I dream now, but I just get the feeling that I dreamt a lot then and I seem to be dreaming a lot now.
 
So that is interesting. You remember as a small boy having dreams that reflected the war, because you were obviously too young?
 
No I was born in 1941.
 
So you might have had some element of the blitz or the doodle bugs coming over?
 
Yes. I mean I seem to have this feeling of hearing aircraft coming over.
 
That’s interesting.
 
And I think, I mean I don’t think they tried to bomb the RAE or anything like that, but I think there were air raid warnings out and about and I know my poor old Nan she always used to be reminding me of a case supposedly where the air raid warning went off and my Mum and Dad said 'oh no we’re too comfortable we can’t be bothered to go down the shelter' and my Nan giving them a hard time.
 
You can remember that or did she tell you that?
 
Well she told me about it later. I can’t remember it happening but she used to report that to me. Yes. I can remember. So yes, I think probably I don’t know whether I dreamt, to what extent I was dreaming about it, but I think I was aware of the fact as a small child, as a baby and an infant that this was happening round and about. I suppose probably at the time you thought it was norm didn’t you.
 
Yes and people say, so you had an awareness of what was going on?
 
Hm.
 
And then did that come up later in your dreams?
 
I think so, no I think when I’m talking about that I’m talking about at the time.
 
At the time you were dreaming and those were dreams in what was going on …?
 
Yes, I think so. Yes.
 
And is that what’s happening now. Is that the kind of dream?
 
No I suppose no, it probably doesn’t reflect the content it reflects the amount of it I think. You know, the amount. I have just got a feeling, it might not even be the case, but I have just got a feeling that I do seem to be constantly dreaming now, and as I say it’s all parallel universe stuff. It’s not desperately interesting. I mean I can’t remember it any way but it’s all living in a parallel life somewhere. 
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.
 

Robert believes the stress from his recent bereavement has caused him to have dreams about the...

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Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
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I dream a lot. Now, I thank that's relevant, I don't, and yes I do dream a lot and funnily enough they are dreams of people I have had, from the age of about 17 until I was 24 and I got married, I was in company virtually with the same men. Young boys, to start I was an apprentice at [town]. We had a hostel, shared a room with a particular man. You had your own particular group. And then I went further on to, it was then the College of Aeronautics and we had much more lavish accommodation then. But I think there were eleven of us went from [town] on the year that I went, on the three years that I went to [town]. And so I was still with the same groups of people and they are heavily embedded in my memory and I still have dreams where in some respects I was looking for [wife] but then they always include industry factories usually. And very often big compartments – and I am always, always something wrong, I am lost, and the one I had a couple of nights ago I had lost my shoes and somebody, I was at one stage at the top of a car and I was building this trolley thing and I was about 50 feet above the trolley and there were a lot of people underneath me, and the trolley wheels, we were whizzing down a road and I was trying to guide the trolley or tell them 'don’t go to the left there sand there'. All sorts of stuff. And it suddenly hit a wall and we all tumbled down and I was in the middle of a canteen. And I said 'someone’s stolen my shoes'. And it is all in colour. And usually for the first ten minutes when I wake up after. They are nightmares in as much as they are not, little dreams there is action going on. I can remember quite fully and we crashed and there was the works canteen and I can see it was like pork pies one and threepence written up there, and there was a big oily sort of bloke, leaning over 'what do you want' sort of thing and usually I am looking and I am in positions, for example we went from this place to a piece of Chicago that I knew, I knew where I was going. The loop in Chicago, you might know it, but I didn’t have any shoes and I didn’t know where I was staying and I was lost. And that is a common thing. I am under some sort of pressure and getting lost, but it’s usually involving people of my youth, not current people at all, but I am always with my old apprentice and students, fellow students and I am always under some sort of pressure. In that respect they are nightmares they are not encouragements and I rightly or wrongly attribute that to the current stresses.
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.
 

Sue B. is aware that her dreams very often reflect what she was doing before she went to bed.

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
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Do you have dreams?
 
A lot.
 
You do?
 
A huge amount and I find, in the last, sort of this last few days the dreams I have are related to what I was thinking about before I have gone to sleep. Slightly related.
 
That is quite common. It is about, although they don’t know why we dream. It is about …
 
They are very vivid and I do remember quite a lot of them. I can remember last night’s because it was with my middle daughter. And I just started, which is a great joy, listening to Desert Island discs on a Friday morning at nine. I fit that in. And I think in the dream she was saying Mum why can’t you come or something, you know, you are late or something. And I was saying oh I want to watch this programme end. It was all tied up with – I had obviously been thinking about listening to it tomorrow. I don’t know, but I do have very vivid dreams. 
 

If William has been mentally active, such as reading a challenging book, he will dream a lot more.

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Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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But does your sleep overall seem better for being more active or less active and more relaxed?
 
I have not consciously looked at that really. Certainly if I overdo it, or I’ve had a strenuous day for some reason or other, you know, most of the days are more or less the same, different details, but its early morning, swimming, breakfast, painting, going out, with whatever or not going out shopping. There’s a pattern. And some evenings we always go to bed as I say quarter to. Well I do quarter to eleven. Some days are more active. Well gardening for instance. [My partner] is a great gardener but there is a fetching and carrying element and like trimming that hedge and if I do that. Ten years ago I could go for eight hours now if I do two hours I’m absolutely knocked out and that makes a difference. I’m physically so tired that I just sleep right through the night.
 
So it is definitely linked to how active you are during the day you think?
 
Yes, yes, I suppose you could draw that conclusion. But if, I belong to a literature class, and we are in recess at the moment, but when we go into the Autumn months we are reading some, I do read a fair amount but because this is organised and you’re working to a time table you know, you have got to stand up and talk about it. You have to, if you get behind with your reading, then you have to read and quite often I spend, you know, about four hours wading my way, enjoying it, but I do much more reading, of a specific thing when that’s happening. And I tend to start dreaming when I go to bed after those sort of days and it might be that I'm, mentally I’m full of what’s been said and the story line and all this sort of business, whereas when you’re clipping hedges and what have you, you are just worn out and you know, you just sleep, sleep of the just. I haven’t thought about it like that. But there is a slight pattern. 
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.
 

If William wakes up because of pain or needing to go to the toilet, he often slips back into the...

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Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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Well a typical night’s sleep. I usually go to bed not really before eleven, and not much after quarter to twelve is the latest really I would say, and depending on what sort of day I’ve had I am asleep within ten minutes or if it's been more relaxing, I might read for quarter of an hour and put the book down and I’m away. And as far as I’m aware I don’t know when I start dreaming, because the beginning of the night is a complete blank sort of disc. In other words I’m not aware of anything whatsoever, but then you become aware of something or other. You, I mean its automatically oneself I suppose. And it could be, well it could be before four or it could be before six, because what happens round about four, five or six, I come around because I need to go to the loo, or I get cramp in my left calf. And so it just brings me round either with the pain one way or the other and I’ll get out of bed and try and push the table the dressing table out of the window or I go to the loo. Then I come back again and it seems to pick up where I left off before, not exactly but I’m in to the story line if there is, and I don’t think this happens every night. I wouldn’t swear to it, but we might find that out if I have to write it down. But because I remember it, it seems as if its every night, but we’ll see how that pans out. It's always, it's not fear, it’s not a fearful situation, but I am concerned and anxious about something and I should be doing something about and I can’t for the life of me focus my mind on what I’m going to do about it because I am so busy being able to get out of the door to start doing something. So I never get to the problem itself. And the environment, like last night for instance I was on a train, but there was nobody in the carriage and yet I was somehow connected with people or I wanted, I needed to get off to do something else because that was where the problem was. And it never resolves itself. Whether I drift off and it goes or comes up. It seems to be continuous except that it doesn’t develop. And then as I say I get the cramp and I come round, you know, something brings me into a different level of consciousness and I’m back in the world. 
 
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.
 

After Dessie’s husband died, she had frequent dreams which contained flashbacks to what had...

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Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
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Well we had just moved house and we had got a new doctor but he did very kindly come and see me one afternoon and he said if you need me for anything he said, you know, I am only on the end of the phone.
 
Oh that is good.
 
‘Just give me a bell, and if I am not there my wife will be there and she can relay a message, just ring me’. He said ‘do you need anything at the moment’ and I said 'well no not really' because although I was waking up a lot then, I thought oh this will pass, you know, this too shall pass, you know, and you get through, you through the funeral, you get through the everything else that you have got to get through and after a few months I thought well my sleep isn’t coming back like I hoped it would.
 
Did it improve a bit?
 
It improved a little bit yes, but then of course the things that wake you up are when you have been through that you are thinking could I have done anything else. What about if I had done this or said that? And you just get those sort of thoughts as well that wake you up. And constant dreams, the dreams of being there.
 
Flashbacks?
 
That is right yes.
 
And they can be very vivid can’t they?
 
Yes, so those sort of things do wake you up. But that is nothing anything different to what other people go through when they have lost someone or they have had bad traumas in their lives. 
 
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.
 

Daniel, who had lots of recurring nightmares when he was younger, remembers a hissing sound in...

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Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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When I was a young boy one of my very real memories is of me lying awake and hearing on the landing my Mum and Dad arguing and my Dad saying, ‘you’re too soft with him’. Words like that. ‘He shouldn’t have a light on’. My Mum had left the light on in the bedroom because I was scared going to sleep. And he was saying no. And I remember every night it was like a compulsion lying on the left side, I still do lie on my left side and my ear on the pillow and I could hear, and you do probably get an audio sensation in your ear, it was like a hissing, and I knew when that started that I was going to have a nightmare.
 
Oh really?
 
It could be auto suggestion or whatever but it can happen to me.
 
So you had lots of nightmares when you were a youngster as well?
 
Yes, and there were two types of nightmare. One was that I got out of bed and I looked downstairs and there’s the front door and the letter box and that letter box would open and there would be two green eyes. That doesn’t sound that bad in the light of day but for me it was terrifying. And the other one, and this recured into my married life/adult life was blackness and of me walking along the road coming to this big old house and going looking through rooms knowing that there was some being or other somewhere in that house and why did I do that. And I was terrified and I would wake up in a cold sweat.
 
So that was a recurrent nightmare as well?
 
And that one actually carried on, there were probably periods when it didn’t happen but I can remember that it carried on into our marriage didn’t it. 
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.
 

Daniel remembers having very bad nightmares at a time when he was under a lot of stress during...

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Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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The dreams, yes, bad dreams. Well they are not so bad as what I used to have. I used to have really bad nightmares. Really bad nightmares. And I don’t know what would happen but for the fact that I have my wife with me. She would actually wake me up. I would be in a nightmare and she would wake me up and say 'you are all right. It’s okay I’m here'. And really you know, I was awake. I wasn’t there in my mind.
 
At what stage of your life was that. Were you working then as a social worker?
 
Yes.
 
Do you think there might be a link between what you did, and I am not sure that you want to go into what you actually did?
 
No. I don’t mind saying generally speaking that I was in – when I started in [city] as a social worker, we did what we called generic social work and our case load, the number of cases we had were all of different groups of people that there are, you know, mental health, elderly, families, children in care, all sorts of stuff. And then it was changed, in quite a revolutionary way in [city] and I ended up doing what I really wanted to do and that was working with children and young people and doing what we called long term child care cases. And yes, there were, I wasn’t the only one but there were a number of us from time to time who went off with stress, high blood pressure related to the stress of the job. And we would be off for a month at a time, that sort of thing. And there were a number of us like that, and yes, I had some of the heaviest cases. So, that must related to my sleep a lot at that time.
 
Was that the time when you had the nightmares as well?
 
Yes.
 
And were you worried a lot at night and wide awake at night?
 
Yes, yes.
 
So it obviously did have an impact on you?
 
It was very hard to switch off. I mean… to be the perfect social worker you switch off but I certainly found it hard to switch off. As time went on I got to tell myself something to get into that mode, but it wasn’t easy. 
 

William dreams more when he is stressed, and his dreams are full of frustrations and tensions, so...

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Age at interview: 78
Sex: Male
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I’m in the train but it’s all slightly different and it never resolves itself and that is what I can remember from last night. I mean it was much more detailed except that I can’t remember the stuff. Or I can be on a boat or the weather turns bad and I’m having to do something, but before I can do it I have got to get out of wherever I am in order to do something. Or switch something on to tell somebody that we’re in trouble, but I can’t get the damn thing to switch on. It's sort of petty frustrations, yes. And I can’t recall anything being terrifying. But I wouldn’t swear to it. Every now and again I get a vague feeling that I’m connected with some work that I’ve done. I vaguely recognise a series of buildings or office buildings or something. I couldn’t describe it, but you have this sense that I have been here before. I am not saying I don’t find myself in a strange place. It’s like being in the boat. My experience of a boat, is the circumstances are vaguely like when I was in my partner’s boat, but it wasn’t his boat, but my whole reaction of the size of the boat and everything must have been built up from what I’ve actually experienced.
 
Your actual memory?
 
But it is not with his boat or I am not looking at it to make sure. I mean he doesn’t come into it. I mean I’m in a boat and there are the sort of stove and pots and pans and what have you and it's doing this. Or I’m in a train and I have spent half my life in trains, and sometimes it’s in a multi storey building or I have been on scaffolding which I have, and I can see that this is a dangerous situation and somebody ought to know about it. But first of all I have got to get myself into a safe position. And you start doing the right thing, but something crops up, so that you can’t get off the planking because you’ve now got to open the window but you know, the whole thing is a series of frustrations with a slight tension of not being on top of it. I don’t know whether it’s that. It’s an anxiety that you are not really achieving what you must do because of these petty interferences. And you are going to say well I didn’t tell the police because I couldn’t get my left boot on or something like that. You know, it never resolves itself.
 
Do you wake up feeling anxious after it?
 
Well yes, I suppose, but when I’m, well usually the cramp hurts me so my mind focuses on that and I think oh God I have actually got to get up. But whether I’m still asleep or I must be coming around and I’m being forced physically to get out of bed to stop the dominant pain or needing to go to the loo. So I couldn’t tell you, and I’ve no sense of time. This may last no end of time, I have no idea, but it only seems to be an incident that is a matter of minutes, but I don’t know even if it repeats itself. I keep seeing as like I’m still on the thing and it goes round and round. So it might be, and I couldn’t be sure of but it might be that I just keep going over the same petty frustration really. 

Last reviewed October 2018.

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