Breaking research

Rituals rebooted for today’s older generation

*Reposted with permission from Brunel University London*

From celebrating life’s big events, to comforting people after tragedy or loss, rituals play a powerful part in helping humans make sense of the world.

And as we begin to lose touch with each other and sometimes our own sense of self, a new study shows how rituals can grow more significant as we age.

In the digital age, now more families live apart and fewer people have religion, loneliness is a recognised public health issue, with its own government minister.

Research just out suggests how carers and relatives can use the healing power of ritual to help older people reconnect with themselves and others.

Social work Professor Holly Nelson-Becker studied how rituals help older people cope with major life events, grief and suffering. She explains how to reboot ritual to help today’s older people cope with major life changes, ageing, suffering and loss.

“Increasingly, people are connected through social media,” said Prof Nelson-Becker of Brunel University London’s Ageing Studies research theme. “But those links are often mostly surface clutter about daily activities, that fail to satisfy or explore the deep nature of friendship.”

“When long-time friends begin to die and family reside in geographically distant places, loneliness can be a result of diminishing social networks.”

Writing in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging, Prof Nelson-Becker notes how people who can no longer have meaningful speech as in some forms of dementia, may still react positively to participation in religious services or joining in singing.

Prof Nelson Becker’s guide to designing a personalised healing ritual factors in choices about sights, sounds, tastes, smells and symbols.

“The framework will be especially useful for older people who may not be able to access ritual through religious frames. It suggests that planning rituals with intention and the presence of family members, long-term care staff, or others as witnesses can provide strength and healing.”

Whether it is through the death of a loved one, illness, disability, loneliness or poverty, someone’s sense of self can be caused to unravel, she says. “When meaning is challenged through suffering, ritual can serve a healing function and help make unbearable suffering bearable,” Prof Nelson-Becker said. “It can help people rebuild or return to a meaningful life.”

In a culture that values youth over age, older people often feel invisible. But as the number of older people rises, there are growing calls to stop relegating them to society’s margins. “Participation in meaningful ritual can help break through the effects of ageism and ageist stereotypes,” Prof Nelson-Becker added.