A Survey of Dreams in Aged Persons

Martin Barad, Kenneth Z. Altshuler, Alvin I. Goldfarb

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Abstract

The dreams of over 50 volunteer residents living in the relative shelter of a home for the aged were studied. Individuals participating were making an adequate adjustment in the home and included patients with and without chronic brain syndrome. In the collection and study of dreams the psychiatrist remained a permissive yet passive participant observer, focusing primarily on manifest content and emotional tone. The dreams were reviewed for common themes possibly indicative of common problems or preoccupations in this age group, for special features of form or content related to the presence of brain damage, and for changes over a period of time. While the findings may pertain to any elderly population, inferences concerning the aged in other settings must be made cautiously. The majority of dreams reported revealed that the subjects conceived of themselves as diminished in resources and consequently weak, relatively helpless, and vulnerable. The preoccupation with loss of resources emerges as a major concern of these aged persons, and various symbolizations of this predominant theme are illustrated. As indicated in dreams, the primary defensive response to the concern with personal deficits appears to be repair through primitive wishful magic and the symbolic recreation of the infant-parent relationship, with its emphasis on oral constructs. Dreams which include overt or disguised references to death and dying and dreams of sexual content are discussed. In addition to any primary relatedness to death or sex, these dreams further emphasize the leading theme of lost resources. In a continuing weekly relationship with the psychiatrist, many subjects contributed consecutive dreams. These series demonstrated a remarkable propensity of the individuals to symbolically incorporate the psychiatrist into their dreams as an omnipotent and controlled provider of magically satisfying services. Several residents dreamed such dreams happily and indefinitely. In others, these dependent strivings appeared unacceptable, frequently leading to dreams indicative of reactivated interpersonal conflicts or efforts to close down feelings by a cessation of dreaming and a reluctance to continue the interviews. Understanding this process and its proper management could be of overriding importance in those cases where such endangers the anxiety maintenance of a therapeutic relationship. The dreams of residents with severe chronic brain syndrome differed chiefly in structure from those of less affected in- dividuals. They were simpler, bore more remote ties to day residue and tended to be more stereotyped and repetitious, while expressing similar emotional concerns with lost resources. The findings leave little doubt that the aged person is capable of sensitive emotional response even in the presence of organic brain damage. As with younger people, understanding dream material enables the psychiatrist to grasp important preoccupations behind a behavioral facade and derive meaningful therapeutic maneuvers to directly meet the personal affective needs of the aged patient. Thus, dreams afford an excellent guide for comprehensive therapeutic efforts and remain a valuable tool for the study of unique concerns in special groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)419-424
Number of pages6
JournalArchives of General Psychiatry
Volume4
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1961

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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