Mark­ing the Mean­ing

How to cre­ate new rit­u­als for this stage of life

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Sheila Mac­gre­gor

LEVERNE AND MARY SCOTT are long-time mem­bers of my con­gre­ga­tion at Siloam United Church in Lon­don, Ont. I buried one of their chil­dren two years ago. They were heart­bro­ken. Like most par­ents, they never ex­pected to sur­vive any of their chil­dren, cer­tainly not at the age of 88. Two weeks ago, this de­light­ful cou­ple cel­e­brated their 90th birthdays with a lovely re­cep­tion that an­other daugh­ter and son or­ga­nized for them. It was a happy oc­ca­sion, and I was de­lighted to have been in­vited to share in their cel­e­bra­tions. But I left feel­ing that there should have been some spe­cial rit­ual that I could have of­fered them to hon­our this mile­stone, es­pe­cially for a cou­ple that has lived through so much and al­ways been so devoted to their church.

Of course, this kind of mile­stone is not as un­usual as it once was. Re­cent an­nounce­ments just this past May from the 2016 cen­sus con­firm sig­nif­i­cant nu­mer­i­cal changes within the ag­ing Cana­dian pop­ula- tion. For the first time in its his­tory, Canada’s se­niors now out­num­ber its chil­dren. More­over, the num­ber of Cana­di­ans who are over the age of 100, es­pe­cially women, has jumped 41.3 per cent. Canada had 8,230 cen­te­nar­i­ans in 2016. “By 2051, the num­ber of cen­te­nar­i­ans could nearly quin­tu­ple,” the agency projects. Ac­cord­ing to Stats Canada, Leverne and Mary could eas­ily ex­pect to live to be more than 100 years old.

What this longevity revo­lu­tion means is that we now must de­velop rit­u­als for which we have never had a need be­fore. This was the theme of the key­note ad­dress given by Rabbi Richard Ad­dress at the Sev­enth In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Ag­ing and Spir­i­tu­al­ity at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity (Chicago) the first week of June. The lat­ter con­tin­ued a se­ries of in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences, which be­gan in Can­berra in 2000 as the brain child of El­iz­a­beth MacKin­lay, who ini­ti­ated these con­fer­ences in her role as found­ing di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre on Ag­ing and Pas­toral Stud­ies (CAPS). All have ex­plored as­pects of ag­ing and spir­i­tu­al­ity and, un­til the two most re­cent con- fer­ences, all have been held in coun­tries of the Bri­tish Com­mon­wealth – Aus­tralia, New Zealand, England and Scot­land. There are ru­mours that the next con­fer­ence may take place in Canada.

Ad­dress, a Re­form Jewish rabbi, is the founder and di­rec­tor of Jewish Sa­cred Ag­ing, a fo­rum for the Jewish com­mu­nity that pro­motes dis­cus­sion and pro­vides re­sources on many per­ti­nent top­ics for boomers and their fam­i­lies. His web­site in­cludes a large se­lec­tion of rit­u­als and prayers cre­ated to re­spond to new life sit­u­a­tions that are fac­ing more and more of us as we move into the sec­ond half of life. Not only are there rit­u­als for re­tire­ment and mile­stone birthdays and an­niver­saries, but there are also re­sources that he and oth­ers have cre­ated to mark such sa­cred mo­ments as leav­ing one’s fam­ily home, re­mov­ing one’s wed­ding ring af­ter one’s part­ner has been dead a year, re­ceiv­ing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dis­ease, en­ter­ing a hospice and re­mov­ing a loved one from life sup­port. (There are also much needed rit­u­als for com­ing out to one’s fam­ily

and friends as gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­dered or twin-spir­ited, as well as prayers for those who are tran­si­tion­ing gen­ders, which may be used at var­i­ous life stages.)

Some may be sur­prised to learn that there are even rit­ual bless­ings for cou­ples who choose to move in to­gether rather than get mar­ried. In April of this year, PEW Re­search noted that the num­ber of peo­ple who choose to co­habit rather than marry con­tin­ues to rise, es­pe­cially for peo­ple over the age of 50. This is a fea­ture of the longevity revo­lu­tion that we are see­ing much more of­ten in the Church now as well. For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, peo­ple who find them­selves wid­owed or di­vorced af­ter many years of mar­riage de­cide they don’t wish to marry again. But there is some­one new who has be­come spe­cial to them, some­one with whom they would like to share what­ever time life may give them, and they look to their pas­tors for some rit­ual that will bless their union. Ad­dress ac­knowl­edges that this may not be for ev­ery­one, but that faith com­mu­ni­ties must not shy away from these dif­fi­cult dis­cus­sions.

Per­haps the prob­lem is that their spouse is still very much alive but suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia and liv­ing in a care home. Ac­cord­ing to the Alzheimer So­ci­ety of Canada, 564,000 Cana­di­ans are cur­rently liv­ing with de­men­tia, and 1.1 mil­lion Cana­di­ans are af­fected di­rectly or in­di­rectly by the dis­ease. Is it still adul­tery, Ad­dress asks, if you en­ter a new re­la­tion­ship when your spouse does not know you any­more? Should we cre­ate a rit­ual where we give folks per­mis­sion to en­ter into an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with an­other, should we be­come in­ca­pac­i­tated? Ad­dress rec­om­mends that cou­ples con­sider writ­ing what he calls “An Open Let­ter to My Spouse” to give their part­ner their bless­ing to en­ter a new re­la­tion­ship if they are no longer able to be fully present to them. He sug­gests that this be done when mak­ing end-of-life de­ci­sions or when writ­ing a liv­ing will. For cou­ples mar­ry­ing in the sec­ond half of life, Ad­dress urges that this dis- cus­sion be­come part of the mar­riage coun­selling that hap­pens in most con­gre­ga­tions prior to the wed­ding.

Draw­ing on his stud­ies of the great 20th-cen­tury Jewish the­olo­gian Abra­ham Heschel, Ad­dress notes, “We are crea­tures in search of mean­ing. We are search­ing for mean­ing­ful ways to mark mile­stones. If you have the two wild cards – wealth and health – you can ex­pect to live an­other 20 to 30 years.” It’s im­por­tant that we de­velop rit­u­als for these years, ways that we can mark the spe­cial mo­ments we share in the sec­ond half of life.

Rev. Jane Kuepfer agrees. The Sch­legel spe­cial­ist in spir­i­tu­al­ity and ag­ing at Conrad Grebel Univer­sity Col­lege in Water­loo, Ont., Kuepfer is con­duct­ing doc­toral re­search on the spir­i­tual re­sources of first-wave boomers (1946-1955) and the role of spir­i­tu­al­ity and mean­ing mak­ing in older adult­hood. As she writes, “There is a need for us to think of rit­ual be­yond our tra­di­tional con­cep­tions. Care­fully imag­ined and crafted sym­bolic acts can in­fuse mo­ments with mean­ing and en­able us to make sa­cred our ex­pe­ri­ences of loss, tran­si­tion, and new be­gin­nings. Rit­u­als also re­mind us of the role of com­mu­nity, and of spir­i­tual lead­er­ship, as we take op­por­tu­nity to sur­round one an­other and sup­port one an­other through the many changes of life.”

As Ad­dress says, rit­u­als are vi­tal be­cause they con­nect us to the Divine and each other. More im­por­tantly, he adds, “If our re­li­gious tra­di­tions can­not talk to us in these new stages of life, then we are ir­rel­e­vant.”


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