In recent years I have been fascinated by the work of Rabbi Richard Address of Jewish Sacred Aging and his colleagues as they have explored questions around the role and value of ritual in older adult relationships. For many years anthropologists have believed that ritual is not only important to mark significant transitions in life, but also as way to create meaning and help people better understand who they are.
One of the pioneers in the field of ritual, especially as it relates to people in later life, is the late cultural anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. In summarizing Myerhoff’s research, Sherylyn Briller and Andrea Sankar note that Myerhoff felt that “rituals are important in daily life because they carry a basic message of ‘order, continuity, and predictability.’ It is precisely their predictable and repetitive nature that gives them their power.”
In times of change when life is more uncertain, rituals help to provide people with a connection to their past, while supporting them as they navigate transitions. Rituals offer stability and help people to make sense of their world.
I can think of no time that is in more need of a sense of stability and continuity than the present. As we live through the Covid-19 pandemic, we need practices and people we can count on. We need the gift of ritual in our lives and this is especially true for our older adults.
My friend Catherine sees her 92-year-old mother several times a week, often picking up prescriptions for her or various items she might need from the grocery store. But one activity in particular that both mother and Baby Boomer daughter look forward to each week is brunch on Sunday morning. That’s when they sit and watch their church’s worship service, which is broadcast on their community television station. Catherine says that this is much better than watching the service on one’s own, which can sometimes feel more like a spectator sport. As she observes, this is an “immersive” experience for them where they actually get to participate in worship. Catherine brings a lovely meal along with some delicious home baking and together they share good food, good conversation and a time of worship – something that in pre-Covid days they had enjoyed doing together when communities of faith were allowed to gather in person.
This wonderful weekly ritual gives them both grounding during what has been a difficult and tumultuous year. It brings them together through a shared experience that is both meaningful and life-giving. What’s more: they have fun together!
 Briller, Sherylyn, and Andrea Sankar. “The Changing Roles of Ritual in Later Life.” Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 35, no. 3 (2011): 6-10. Accessed February 7, 2021. doi:10.2307/26555787.