Older Generations Are Reclaiming Rites of Passage

Nancy Rhine, a gerontologist and marriage and family therapist in Mill Valley, Calif., has helped about 40 older adults prepare for and process late-life rituals involving hours of retrospection and introspection, art and music.

“They’re looking at legacy, life review, taking stock,” she said. “It’s that searching, a contemplative practice.” Her oldest such client was 81.

This spring, Kris Govaars was turning 70 and still mourning his wife, Vicki Govaars, who had died in 2019, just weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “I was a boat without a tether,” Mr. Govaars, a former architectural consultant in the Bay Area, said. “I was struggling, trying to figure out my next steps.”

He came across the Center for Conscious Eldering, founded by Ron Pevny, author of “Conscious Living, Conscious Aging,” and decided to join its weeklong retreat at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. His group of 14, which included people in their 50s to their 80s, spent several days engaging in spiritual practices, exercises and discussions.

For his culminating ritual, called a “solo journey,” Mr. Govaars selected a private spot on a riverbank. After passing through a portal formed by two trees (and having a close encounter with a bobcat), he fasted, maintained silence, read poetry, journaled and wrote “legacy letters” for his two children.

“I just spent a lot of time in thinking and meditation,” he said, deeply moved by the experience.

“The outcome is hopefully a greater sense of happiness and purpose,” he explained. “I feel calmer. I feel much more introspective. I listen with an open heart and mind. I may look the same, but I am different.”

In addition to helping people see old age as a phase of life with purpose and rewards, along with the more commonly recognized challenges and deficits, rituals for older adults may affect others, Ms. Leardi pointed out.

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