By Jack Cumming
This three-part series seeks to narrate aging for those who don’t yet feel old. Read Part 1 HERE.
Old age comes with the blessing of freedom, but old people face anxiety just as do people of all ages. Beyond the freedom of old age, another of its joys is the prevalence of delightful dreams with only an occasional entanglement.
Last night, I was dreaming of moving to a new home. My dream guardian never explained the why. That new home was on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the Mississippi River. Why? The dream guardian never explains unlikely locations.
My father came to see what my new home was like. As I slept, the dream was my reality. I remember now awake, how in my dream Dad walked out onto the rotting dock to stand poised looking out over the river and taking it all in.
I said something about the rot, and he said, “You bought the house as is, so it’s your rotting deck now.” With that, I woke up. What was the message? Perhaps, that my rotting body is not someone else’s responsibility. It’s mine now.
The increasing frequency of dreams eases some of the loss that all older people naturally experience. I’m no longer the knight-errant I once imagined myself to be. Still, in my dreams, I’m athletic as I never was and capable of miracles like effortless flying. Dreams can be liberating.
Yet, not all dreams are positive. In a recurrent dream, I’m in an airport looking for the gate, but my iPhone directions don’t work right, and no one can help. Meanwhile, the departure time draws nearer while I helplessly flail this way and that in distress.
This dream comes in variations. In other dreams, I can’t find my car. I suppose these are anxieties that we all experience. I enjoy the relief that comes with waking up — a frequent occurrence in an old person’s night — to find that it was only a dream.
When I try to imagine what dementia must be like, I often wonder if there is a blurring between those dream states and the wake states. We consider our waking moments to be reality while dreams are unreality. But, a dream, while we experience it, can seem very real and very meaningful. Is dementia like being trapped in a dream — serene or terrifying?
Back to Reality.
Some of my happiest moments come in dreams, but so too do some of my most anxious moments. I’ve never missed a flight nor lost my car. That’s reality. If our friends with diminished cognition are living in a pleasant dream, that would not be so bad. If they sometimes dream about their anxieties, perhaps all we can do is hug them with love until they sense the comfort, and the anxiety resolves into a safe reality.
Sharing our joys and fears with others is among the finest hours of the human experience.