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The Ageing Rite of Passage - Part 1

My mum (pictured here) has spent the last four weeks in hospital, during which time she was permitted to leave for a few hours to celebrate her 90th birthday. Spending hours each day with her at the hospital, there was plenty of opportunity to reflect on and to discuss ageing. It became evident that it was highly unlikely she would be able to return to independent living in her own home. Given her location, family and social network the most logical residential option is a local nursing home and residential aged care facility that my dad was responsible for being built as his ‘project’ when he was the president of the local Rotary club back in the late 60’s.

This would mean that she would be going from a four-bedroom home to a ‘hostel room with an ensuite’. Until recently, mum had been going out to this nursing home for years, being part of the support group that helped with their singing days. In many instances she was older than the people she was serving. Intimately familiar with what this move would mean she asked (with tears) a very poignant question, “Who will I be now?”

Observing the inevitable confrontation with becoming elderly, 14th century Italian humanist philosopher, Francesco Petrarch wrote, “How swiftly time before my eyes rushed on after the guiding sun that never rests…This morning I was a child and am now old.” Petrarch, in describing the ‘trumps’ of life explains how Time (in the medieval manuscripts of Petrarch’s Trionfo, Time would be depicted as an old man carrying an hourglass typical of il tempo or the hermit in the tarot cards) “dissolves all mortal things, both physical and mental. Men turn to dust and life to smoke. Old age brings misery and Glory melts like snow in the sun. Time, in his avarice, steals all and thus triumphs over the world and Fame.”[i]

Whenever those of us in the Western culture are presented (often beyond our control) with times of significant transition we either consciously or subconsciously ask this same question? An adolescent develops ‘adult physical features’ and in the case of young women, commence their menses, and even if not conscious of it will wonder, “Who am I now?” Women go through menopause, men through andropause, as well as facing retirement and may well ask, “So who will I be now?” In astrology reference is made to two Saturn returns, seen to be associated with those times when we make the transition from our formative years to our productive years (around the age of 30), and from our productive years to our harvest years (around the age of 60). Each time we are presented with the same question, “Who will I be now?”

If we live long enough there is this time, like that confronting my mum, where all that essentially defines who we are both physically and mentally will be taken away. This results in what can be best described as a crisis of values. In other words, if what you valued was invested in external measures like wealth, power, love and intimacy, and popularity, then anytime natural justice, ageing or misfortune take them away, (which is inevitable) you’ll experience a values crisis.

The recent pandemic forced people globally to prematurely experience that very thing. It would seem that a significant number of people found it overwhelming, typical of what the elderly experience when ‘Time’ turns their world upside down. During the pandemic, people were and still are being confronted with the loss of freedom, being confined to their homes. In many cases they struggled to keep their businesses open and to find enough money to pay the rent or sustain mortgage payment for their homes. What has significantly affected many people is the lack of social contact. When you think about it, this is typical of what a lot of elderly people experience, more especially, the older they get. The world has been given an intimate look at what the elderly have been experiencing for many years.

In many cultures rites of passage are used for significant periods of transition. In the case of my own children, when my son reached the age of puberty and had noticeably developed more manly features, a friend of ours and his two boys, who were about the same age, decided to hold a rite of passage ceremony. In addition to the ceremony, it was decided to do bungy-jumping, which as dads we also did as our boys were quick to point out that we hadn’t had our rites of passage as teenagers. My daughters had their rites of passage with their mum and their network of women and girlfriends.

Recently, friends of mine separated amicably and I suggested they hold a rite of passage to hold sacred this significant period of transition. The ceremony began with one large lit candle from which they each lit their own candle. The first candle was then blown out, symbolic of their union coming to a close. The lighting of individual candles symbolised the idea that the light they shared still existed in their individually lit candles. In their independence they could still acknowledge the love that they had shared. They were each then given a ‘worry-bead’ bracelet and for the number of beads that were on the bracelet, they would send their ex-partner a SMS message telling them what they appreciated about them, for as many days as there were beads. They had to wear the bracelet for the duration, after which they could do with it as they pleased. With their last bead they wrote a message of appreciation for the way they had been blessed, having been together.

While talking to mum, the thought crossed my mind that what she was about to experience was one of the most challenging periods of transition that someone might face. Of course, many people by virtue of their spiritual journey voluntarily make this shift in values way before becoming elderly. Typically, this process of transition is called the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s my belief that whether it’s done voluntarily at an earlier age, or brought on by natural justice, ageing, or misfortune (or is experienced in post-mortality), it will still be a Dark Night of the Soul. This transition from unsustainable values to sustainable values in the Christian tradition was formalised in a rite of passage called baptism. I like to think of it as spiritual bungy-jumping since the apostle Paul wrote, “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31)

Given the significance of this passage of transition, I began to explore that idea that people in the same situation as my mum could benefit greatly by holding a rite of passage ceremony. It would highlight the profundity of this transition from home to residential age care. It would give the elderly somewhere to ‘park’ their grief as their fast approaching ‘end of day’, that inevitable destination of Time, more quickly dissolves the body and the mind. By shifting the focus from one of loss to one of celebration and giving helps to reduce the impact of grief. This rite of passage would include family and close friends at the elder’s home and might include the following components:

1. In the ceremony, the family and friends that have gathered publicly acknowledge the elder’s contribution in their lives and highlight the key points of this elder’s journey, giving space for appreciation and gratitude, thus helping to minimise the impact of grief.

2. The gifting of personal artifacts to specific family members and close friends by the elder will fill the elder’s heart with the joy that giving brings (which they would miss out on after their death). The elder can now associate joy rather than loss with the things they have had to leave behind.

3. There could be a ‘key ceremony’ where the elder hands over the keys to their house, and in return are given an album of memories of the home they are leaving and a maybe an important plant or something similar that holds the symbolic essence of their home that will help to bring that energy to their new home.

4. A ‘mourning tea’ where family and friends gather to share food and company, thus helping the elder to be more of the observer of their past and less attached to it. Being the observer of their past, one is more able to be detached from the past.

5. The elder is then taken to their new residence by close family and friends where a priest or person of spiritual significance performs a blessing or clearing ceremony on the new space, highlighting that this is now a sacred space. A place of heightened spiritual alignment, given the gift of being release from their material-centred world.

6. Each family member and close friend will then publicly declare what they will do to support the elder while they are in their new ‘home’.

When we have the capacity to see something differently, then and only then can we change our experience of that thing. One of the most important steps listed above is the fifth one. It’s creating this idea that where they have moved to is a sacred space. Sacred, because it’s here that the real work can be done to consciously prepare to cross the final human portal, from life to death (given that most of the mental faculties are functioning). Now free of those things that had defined who they were in the world (their home, possessions and activity in the world) the elder has the opportunity to contemplate who they are without those things and explore a whole new set of values with which to be aligned. The absence of that, can only result in suffering that attachment with loss brings.

As an aside, this rite of passage would also be beneficial to the family and friends of the elder who might otherwise be burdened with the sadness and possibly even guilt at having to orchestrate this shift for their loved one. An expansion of their ongoing support is the encouragement and assistance they can give the elder in more fully embracing this sacred part of their life-journey.

In Part 2 of The Ageing Epidemic, I will discuss what the nature of this contemplative time could look like.

[i] From The Early Renaissance Personification of Time and Changing Concepts of Temporality by Simona Cohen

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