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 population. 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 conferences, 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 discussion 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.”
Rev. Dr. Sheila Macgregor is the lead minister at Siloam United Church, London, Ont., and a passionate boomer. Her book Re-Designing Your Life After 50: A Practical Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, including Retirement and Beyond will be published later this year. Check out her blog www.boomerality.wordpress.com.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 issue with the headline, “Marking the Meaning In…”, p. 56-57.