DreamTime,Volume 23, Number 2, page 12, Fall 2006


Dream Sharing in a Retirement Community

– I dedicate this paper to Montague Ullman MD, teacher and friend–

by Rachel Aubrey, LCSW (ra18[at]columbia.edu)


In 2001 I moved from my home in New York City to a large Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) in New England. Trying to adjust to a new life I wondered what might be of help as we deal with loss of spouse, friends, declining health and important aspects of our former lives. Medical care here is excellent and individual counseling available, yet most residents feel they should cope with their loss issues alone. Might a group process based on dream sharing be helpful?   For many years I was a member of Montague Ullman's New York dream sharing group; it greatly enriched my life. Would such a group work here?   I had many doubts but with the ongoing support of Monte and some new friends I decided to try. The group is now in its sixth year.  

Before starting the group I worried about several issues. Dream work may reactivate painful "forgotten" memories and call for additional help such as therapy.   I worked as a psychotherapist in New York for many years but did not wish to resume that role here. Confidentiality might be a problem; residents eat together and meet in daily activities; would group business leave the group?   Some residents are caregivers, others coping with disability or chronic illness, would they be able to attend regularly?   Is it appropriate to charge a customary fee while other group activities, (Tai Chi, exercise, chorale) are offered free? Finally, what might be the effect on group dynamics when the leader is also a fellow resident?

After living here eighteen months I began to screen for a group. To avoid   having to reject applicants with cognitive impairment, members agreed to keep the group's existence confidential.   New members are brought in on a four-week trial basis after which we decide together whether they should continue. At first the group met weekly, then we changed to bi-weekly due to residents' many other interests. We meet evenings for one-and-a half hours in my apartment. There is no fee but residents commit to regular attendance unless excused. Our first meeting was in June '03.

The initial group included seven women, then aged seventy-nine to ninety-one;   no men seemed interested.   We use a modified version of Montague Ullman's Appreciating Dreams group approach; some phases of the process may be condensed or occasionally omitted. As leader I maintain the safety of the dreamer, make sure she controls the process, that her privacy is not invaded, and leading questions avoided. The dreamer decides how much to share and can terminate the process at any time. I lead the group through the several Ullman strategies, designed to help the dreamer make new discoveries about her dream, watch the time to allow her to respond, and for a dialogue to ensue. As a co-equal group member I often share a dream of my own. I try to keep some notes on group process. We work with on one dream each meeting.

I shall now report on work with a few dreams:

* * *

Jane's Dream Jane, widowed in her thirties, never remarried; she has four children, two of them with serious problems, and several grandchildren. An artist, computer expert and "professional volunteer" she cheerfully does every chore around. Jane prefaced each dream with "I already know what it means". She rarely mentioned a chronic illness but in December 2003 became critically ill and died.  

  "I am driving along in a convertible with Beth. We get close to a high concrete wall.   Suddenly I hit something that juts out of the wall and stop. I ask Beth whether she is OK and she says yes. I get out and inspect the front of the car; it was neatly pushed in, no broken glass. I go looking for an auto center along the road; there is a high curved wall.   I go into a building, look upstairs and downstairs, have to go in and out of tunnels. No one knows where to find what I am looking for. I come out, it is dark now, I try to go back to the car, and see a golden retriever; we talk together briefly.    I try walk over a grassy space with a stream crossing it, turn back to the roadway and finally see my car. Beth says, 'I'm OK; I'll call the auto center on my cell phone"

Answer to Clarifying   Questions : "Beth is a good friend; the time is the present. There is no color in the dream." We make the dream our own:

 "The weirdness of my dream bothers me; why did I not see the jutting wall?   It feels like a fairy story, a dream within a dream."

"I feel very guilty that this has happened; why drive at my age? Getting lost is very familiar. I wonder whether my friend is upset and really hurt?"

Jane takes over, cutting off further responses; "I was looking for a hotel for my children; and drove my daughter's new car that day. I worry about her impending visit, she has many problems and can be very difficult". Silence, then,

Leader asks "Might the dream refer to a different set of circumstances?"

Jane considers this briefly but then states firmly there is nothing further she wishes to do with the dream. A discussion ensued about people getting lost when they first move to this community. The group stayed the full allotted time.  

Leader's impression ; Clearly there was more to explore but Jane was not willing to do so. The dream occurred some four months before her death. The high wall in the dream and the many ups and downs may represent her inability to overcome numerous medical problems, most of which she kept hidden even from close friends. She knew intuitively how deeply to explore her dream and when to stop the process, avoiding a possible threat to a fragile equilibrium. The group was greatly affected by her death, talked about it often and decided not to admit a new member for several months.

* * *

Eva's Dream Eva, divorced after a long marriage, has no children. A retired librarian she is an active hospice volunteer, plays the cello, is member of several musical groups and loves hiking. She speaks softly in an understated manner.

"I am walking along a road and come across a small cat, sort of non-descript; it seems to belong to the K's who have no interest in it. The cat is obviously pregnant and delivers on the sidewalk, a heap of gravely red bits. I poke through this to see whether there is a viable fetus but decide there isn't, maybe that's just as well. However, she seems ill so I pick her up and carry her in a sort of pouch on my belt. We walk along a road which is familiar though I have not been there for a long time. My in-laws used to live here, in a small old Cape house in a lovely valley. Now there is a huge modern house in terrible taste, gross in that setting. I wander back to where I started and am surprised to discover I no longer have the cat. I don't worry about her and wake up."

--Clarification: "About a week ago I had a dream that I picked up a stray dog, black and scruffy, and took it home but it soon left. In both dreams I am my present age."

--We make the dream our own.

"In my dream I feel very responsible, it's distressing to have the cat deliver like that, I am relieved there is no viable fetus. But where is the cat, why did I not care for her?"

  "For me this is about caring for of sick people as I often did. My relationship with the cat refers to my then in-laws, the new house is not relevant." Long silence; then

Eva "I am puzzled why I don't worry about the animal. I feel lucky to have lived this long; what else can I do for people?"

"In my dream I try to imagine a future without my dog."

"I am afraid I may have been a burden to Eva on a recent joint trip" (gives some details). Eva reassures her this was not the case.

  "I have a feeling of loss about the Cape house."

Eva "Going back to old haunts is often hard; the place was very pretty."

"Why did I carry the cat in a pouch?"  

Long silence, then Eva with sudden recognition, "Many years ago I had a miscarriage, my husband and I went to my in-laws' house to visit but my mother-in-law, an invalid, was very unhelpful. Our marriage was already troubled, and after a while I decided to leave. Maybe it was just as well not to have a child." Eva went on to describe a life-long need to take care of stray animals, she has owned and lost many. A discussion developed about the importance of caring for an animal as we get older.

--Leader's Impression The idea of miscarriage occurred to me when Eva first told her dream but I decided not to bring it up, hoping she would connect with it herself. Our long supportive silence allowed Eva to remember an old painful event which did not seem to upset her now; in fact it seemed to bring her some closure.

* * *

Gay's Dream Gay's husband of sixty years, Peter, lives in our Health Center with advancing Alzheimer's; she has four children and several grandchildren. Her oldest daughter, Lillian, died very recently after a long incurable illness. A very religious and spiritual woman, Gay has always recorded but never shared her dreams, which she views in Jungian terms. She often talks about constant shifts in husband's illness, her own changing role in the marriage, and missing Lillian with whom she was very close.

 "An atom bomb? or some other powerful destructive force is loose; I am not exactly sure but name it such. I worry about who may own it and how it will be used. A very rich male friend of our group, who is also struggling to survive, buys a large piece of land which includes the bomb. He tells us what he has done, and gives us the land. We are astonished and grateful; he has used the land appropriately and the bomb is now safe. I wake up trying to figure out who he is, very familiar, slim, dark, middle-aged, courteous. No one else in the group is familiar but we are all peers in age, it's like a small cell in a larger setting."

--Asked about her feelings in the dream,

Gay "At first I am frightened, then reassured."

--We make the dream our own:

"In my dream the man is the new Pope. Can he save our world?"

"In my dream he is a Christ-like figure." Long silence, Gay is then invited to recall events the night before the dream;

Gay "I had a long talk with my daughter, Barbara, about her older sister, Lillian, who recently died. Barbara is conflicted about her own life though it seems to be going well." Again a very long silence; group seems stymied;

-- Leader recalls an earlier dream in which Gay expressed anger at Lillian's ex-husband, Jim. Might he be in the dream?

Gay, with sudden insight, shares details of a recent Memorial Service for Lillian.   Jim, her ex-son-in-law, was unexpectedly kind and caring, gave her a big hug; the old anger seemed gone, it's like a renewal of their once good relationship; she can now forgive that he divorced Lillian.   Gay was very moved by the dream and felt much calmer. Members went on to share memories of being angry at their children; Nancy said we must never give voice to such feelings but others reminded her we must be honest in the group.

--Leader's impression :   Gay has often spoken of her inability to feel anger in dealing with repeated losses (husband's Alzheimer's, daughter's untimely death). Presenting her dream to peers (the group) may have helped her accept some angry feelings in herself. The meaning of the inert bomb was not explored, it suggests that sometimes Gay's feelings are about to explode. Though she has had considerable therapy Gay does not want to go back to it now "because I have the group." So far this has not created a problem; Gay always has a dream to share but willingly takes her turn. All of us know Peter who often feels like an invisible member of the group.

* * *

Nancy's Dream  Nancy , widowed,   a retired social worker, has two children and two grand-children. A quiet introspective woman, a life-long Quaker, pacifist and social activist, she also writes poetry; she often shares long and multi-layered dreams;

"I am with a family group on a visit to a foreign country. I am to take a package to the post office; they explain how to find it, a noteworthy building easy to recognize.   I find it, looks like a chapel with steps leading up to the entrance. I notice two young men at the top, they are not street people, one wears a nice white shirt. I open the door, the room is dimly lit, there's a huge log across the floor. The two men come up, lift me across the log, caress my breast and set me down. I thank them and find the post office; the post master, an insignificant middle-aged man, finally comes and we finish the business of the package. The two men are still there; I am sure they are waiting to rape me. I feel really trapped, what options do I have?   The post master should call the police but there is no phone. Is there a back entrance to get out? I wake up panicked but it's not a real nightmare; I go on working with the dream."

--Clarification   " I have no sense of my age in the dream; there is no color but the post office is very dim".

--We make the dream our own;

"I have a scary memory of being alone at night in San Francisco;"

"I had a panic attack while alone in Mexico City with many unfamiliar people"

"My friend was mugged as we walked down a street in Brussels."

Long silence, the group felt stuck. Then Nancy, feeling supported by the silence, connected her dream to an important recent event;

"The two men were somehow familiar. A few days ago my two nephews took my sister-in-law from our Health Center to live in another community closer to their homes; it was very upsetting. I feel deserted; my brother died some years ago, and now I am the last member of my family." A caring group interaction developed leading to discussion of a recent meeting on Ageing. Two members expressed anger that love and sex are never mentioned in talks about older people; each had an erotic dream after that meeting.

Leader's impression:   Much of Nancy's dream, including the sexual theme, remained unexplored but she was able to talk about a recent major loss, and accept comfort from the group. "Post office" and "post master" may refer to her former professional life. The loss of a spouse or other family member is almost taken for granted in our retirement years; we need to pay more attention to such losses, and the resulting need for affection and physical touch.

* * *

Polly's Dream Polly, widowed twice, has eight children, and many grandchildren. Worked in education, is now busy with family and community, also sculpts and plays the recorder. When first approached about the group Polly stated "I never remember dreams".

"This is a recurring dream. I am lost in an unknown city-it says "City" somewhere. I have to walk up lots of steep hills, am under pressure to get home but have no idea how; the streets are unfamiliar; I ask people for help but they are not interested;   a woman on a bench does say 'How can I help you?' feeling sorry for me; I try to make her feel OK. I look for addresses in my purse but my list is in tatters, all torn and messed up. There are myriads of roads and only strangers around."

Polly adds she has many dreams like this, they go on and on, with no end in sight.

--We make the dream our own.

"For me this is a very familiar dream; I am running late, very stressed, trying to find my purse, have no money, scramble along looking at my watch and wondering what excuse to give";

"I am puzzled and annoyed, no way to get home, strangers don't understand; I pretend they do but they don't have a clue";

"I often have dreams like that, when I feel totally lost, unable to get home";

"I have a very poor sense of direction and often get lost in my dreams"

"It's like you need to get home but have no car."

"I am wrestling with the future, where is home now?"

"How do you relate to strangers even when they are very friendly?"

Asked about the night before the dream;

Polly "My kids want me to come visit them in their home far away; I feel anxious about so a long a trip alone". Silence, then-

Polly "I should count my blessings. The woman on the bench must have thought me crazy; I need to tell her I do know what I'm doing".  

Leader's Thoughts    Polly chose not to explore the dream further but clearly tries to assure herself and others that her autonomy is still in tact. A discussion followed about impaired physical mobility and memory problems as we age. In trying to adjust to a new community most of us make a good surface adjustment but still yearn for some aspect of the past. For some the new community will never be home;   

* * *

Rachel's dream Rachel, (group leader), widowed twice, two children, three grand-children, retired psychotherapist, now involved with writing, music and hosting   international students from a near-by university;

"I struggle with conflicting demands. I am visiting my mother who is quite ill but acts very normally. I know she will shortly die but both of us are very matter-of-fact about it. I should be back in my office in another town but still have so much to do here. I also struggle with some old files; pages fall out but instead of re-filing them I crumple the papers and throw them in the waste basket. Yet another struggle is about getting my hair done; I remember the name of a beauty shop I went to for many years but cannot find the phone number. I call Information but they don't help. In the dream I am aware of all these conflicts, and decide to wake myself up. It is only 5.30 a:m but I cannot get back to sleep.   I know the dream is about a major problem in the group."

--The group makes the dream their own;

"Am I trying to get rid of the group? I am so busy with many other things, some important, others not. I have not told anyone that mother is dying".

"I have too much on my plate, must let the family know, how do I chose between

  mother and my office? I feel guilty about mother. I also often lose things"

"I am trying to accept that mother is dying; telling someone else would make it easier. My office is no longer important; I don't have to do that any more."

Rachel then talks about her feelings the night before. "I was worried about the group.        A few nights earlier three members failed to show for a scheduled group meeting. One of them called to say she was very upset by Gay's graphic description of her daughter's death and cremation at the last meeting, and was thinking of leaving the group. I myself was troubled by Gay's explicit telling but felt she had the right to do so; though I have often dealt with death part of me wanted to make Gay's story go away.   ('throw the papers away'). I also felt guilty for postponing the last group meeting one week to attend a scheduled concert; was I indulging in pleasure ('get my hair done') rather than honoring a professional commitment?   After a telephone consult with Monte I invited Polly to meet with me; we talked about people's different sensitivities, and the need to bring up the issue next time

With all the group present we had a long and honest discussion about boundaries; Gay apologized for unwittingly having caused discomfort to members. A potentially serious group crisis was averted.

Leader's impression;   Rather than working more with the dream content we spent the entire time trying to resolve group tensions. The dream points to some role conflict following retirement, and in adjusting to life in a new community.

* * *

To summarize, dream sharing with seniors in a retirement community is appropriate and can be very meaningful. Dreamers know how deeply to explore a dream, when a threat is perceived familiar defenses take over. The leader needs to be flexible in not pushing the process further than a dreamer can comfortably go, even if some important issues remain unexplored. Confidentiality has not been an issue but the leader must be sensitive to preexisting relationships before bringing in a new member. Attendance can be problematic, fatigue, illness, visiting family, and memory lapses may keep members away. If the group is large enough (six or seven members) good work can be done with one or several members absent.   Extra time is needed for members to write down dreams, and to allow for hearing problems. Time should also be allowed for some relaxed talk once the actual dream work is done. Important issues that come up can then be addressed in the after-glow of good dream work. Some group leaders believe charging a fee will assure better attendance; in this community it would have a negative effect, and also change the group's relationship with the leader.   Having the leader a fellow resident has not been a problem, and has contributed to greater informality. In conclusion, dream sharing with seniors is empowering, helps build community, and may offer vital support at times of individual crisis.  


Ullman, Montague (1996) Appreciating Dreams, a group approach, Sage Publications;

Aubrey, Rachel (1985) Separation and Loss in University Mental Health Work ,

Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, vol. 14;

Aubrey, Rachel (2008) The Courage to Mourn, unpublished manuscript;


Rachel Aubrey LCSW, certified psychotherapist (retired); private practice in Manhattan, senior therapist, Columbia University Counseling and Psychological Services; individual therapy and bereavement groups; consultant to International Student Office, Columbia University; dream-group leader.