As we descend further into the chill of Autumn, my thoughts shift to an upcoming script I’ll be writing: A Sagesse Ceremony. Sagesse is from the French, and means ‘wise’.
I recently officiated a funeral for a woman who, when due to retire from the NHS, was given a certificate to say she could keep working. She stayed in that job until 75, and then continued working in private care right into her 84th year. Stories like this are few and far between. Of course, some people can’t wait to retire. This could be because they hate their job, or have fabulous hobbies they want to spend more time on, or they simply don’t need to work because they’re financially secure. But what we don’t tend to talk about as a culture is what happens when we reach society’s Use-By Date it has assigned us. More often than not, Culture offers the elderly a nursing/care/retirement home. So long they’re comfortable and fed, let’s keep them away from the rest of the world and out of sight. We certainly don’t want to be reminded about what’s down the track for us at the end of life, do we?
One of the reasons for the rapid deterioration of the elderly is because they’re no longer valued. They’re not considered an asset and so with that loss of purpose, what else do they have to live for? Studies show, for example, that hands-on grandparents live longer and are healthier than those who don’t have such interactions. In the moving book, Being Mortal, we read about how people in care homes where there are indoor plants, pets such as cats, dogs or even a lorikeet in each resident’s bedroom, visiting children, and vegetable gardens they can tend, usually come off most or all medication and thrive. Why? Because they have a sense of purpose. Each day there is a focus, a job to do, something or someone to observe or care for. It’s pretty much common sense, but this is so fundamentally lacking in many options for the elderly.
I had a conversation a year or so back with a man in his early 70s who was reluctant to retire from his business because of the lack of purpose he’d be facing. He wanted to do something with all the knowledge and expertise he’d spent a lifetime accumulating. Where was he to leave and share that experience, he wanted to know. Some elderly people volunteer in charity shops, and others befriend the lonely. On the whole though, culture shuns those who are no longer of use.
Writing ceremonies for those transitioning between working or reproductive life, and what’s on the other side of that, is done so with immense reverence, and with the intention of honouring all that has gone before, and how that shall be mindfully carried into the future in such a way that the Cloak of Wisdom is wrapped as a regal shawl of worldliness. Such a ceremony may be titled: wise crone; sagesse; menopause; Saturn return, for example.
The elderly are the libraries of our culture. We’ve already seen the impact of kindle on bookshops, and social media destroying face-to-face communication; how long will it be before care homes are considered a ‘waste of space’? Changes happen incrementally in our world. Things come and go: people, trends, inventions, values. When parents/grandparents are no longer an integral part of family life, they deteriorate. But you know what? So do we. We lose the vital opportunity to have our lives enriched.
When I come across someone in their 90s who is positively thriving, it’s always because they have a rich and purposeful life: they’re avid gardeners, bakers, have a firm family life, volunteer, are still driving and therefore independent, and so on. They’re not sitting on a sofa watching Jeremy Kyle.
Think about the elderly people in your life whether they are family, friends, neighbours or even strangers you pass. When was the last time you stopped and talked to them? Really talked to them. Not about the weather or some external thing, but about what their dreams were/are, their passions, their regrets, their loves, their losses. What makes their heart sing? If you don’t have the time or inclination to care about such people, just remember this: one day you’ll be old, and there may not be anyone around to value your life’s journey. Maybe you’ll be shunted away without anyone giving a damn as to all you’ve learnt and can pass on to others. What makes a life meaningful (goes the reading I sometimes share at funerals), is not what we learn but what we teach.
So, when you’re old, will you be wise? Will you feel impotent because there’s no one interested in all the experiences you’ve garnered and life lessons you’ve mastered? What shall you do with your three score years and ten of ‘life’?
When I teach celebrant students, I say that the most important part of this job is our ability to listen. It doesn’t matter a jot if you’re the world’s best writer, performer, have good business sense, are a whiz at marketing, or have fab social skills or thousands of likes on Facebook. If you can’t slow down, keep your mouth closed other than to ask caring or insightful questions, then you miss laying the strong and vital foundations of all ceremony work. If the same truth was applied to our cultural approach to the aging, oh how different society would look.
(*silent and listen contain the same letters)
For my part, it will be my immense privilege to start creating a Sagesse (wise woman) Ceremony for a lady transitioning into being an elder in her community.
Veronika Robinson is a Heart-led Celebrant who has been officiating ceremonies since 1995, and is a Celebrant Trainer in Cumbria where she offers private tuition in all aspects of celebrancy. She’s also the editor of The Celebrant magazine. Veronika is currently President of the Association of Independent Celebrants.