Column: Aging, Access, and Paganism

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Spring brings Pagan festivals, picnics, and other gatherings. It also brings a reminder of how a certain aspect of being a part of the community can be overlooked: Aging Pagans.

At Paganicon this year, I was delighted to see more individuals enjoying the conference in walkers, wheelchairs, using canes, or simply walking slowly while holding on to the arm of a friend. The needs of our aging population are accommodated through the hotel to a point; the community response to aging has been a bit slower at times. At a time when the very fabric of the health care system in the United States is being unwoven and re-woven, the issues of age, health, and viability in the Pagan community are particularly relevant.

[Pixabay / public domain]

[Pixabay / public domain]

The stereotypical image of a Pagan participant is that of youth, engaging in magical arts. As our community has grown, members have grown older. We revere them with our altars devoted to ancestors; however, when was the last time that you saw the majority of any Pagan conference addressing the needs of those who are candidates for AARP or Social Security?

Is it harsh to presume that our religious traditions by their nature and the participatory origins favor those who are under 40 or even 50 rather than those who are past the half-century mark?

A question of aging
A few years ago, I led a discussion on the issue of how groups can address the real issue of aging within the community, and specifically within various covens, groves, kindreds and the like. For those who hold ritual in a private setting, are the homes wheelchair accessible? Are there ramps or steps that are easy to navigate?

Are rituals held in locations where a local bus service or disability service can drop off and assist participants? Are events held at times when such a service can be used? If the ritual is in a public location, such as a park, is there space for members needing accessible parking spaces? Is there sufficient room within the building to navigate with a cane, walker, or wheelchair?

Most modern buildings are ADA compliant, but that does not mean navigation is easy. Is the ritual space floor flat and relatively even? Overall, does the group or tradition present an inviting front for those who may have challenges due to aging or physical disability?

I will never forget one participant who came to the discussion to find help or suggestions for a very recent situation in her tradition. An older initiate, who lived alone and had a tendency to prefer solitude, had not shown up in some time. When someone went to see the initiate, the group found this individual in poor medical and fiscal circumstances. Fortunately, this particular group was large enough to divide the tasks to care for the individual until the situation was resolved. Hearing this experience made me consider those older community members who are not so fortunate, as this one was, to live close to other members or work with a group of that size of the group.

How often does this happen with our solitary Pagan folk, or with those who are not out to neighbors, family, or co-workers?

Who will convey the individuals’ desires with regard to health care, hospital treatment, pet care, bills, and even plain old housework? Who will make arrangements for transportation to doctors’ appointments, or to the local grocery store to put food in the house?

In the absence of a spouse, children, or roommates, who will help to care for the individual in a manner that honors a particular Pagan tradition? If the person must be institutionalized in an assisted living or a nursing home, who will help bring the religious practice to the individual or make sure that person gets to ritual?

A question of access and accommodation
The questions above are not ones that come up when we first choose to embrace any Pagan path or tradition. Putting aside the labels that individuals choose for identification, one reality remains: the subject of aging has started to become relevant in recent years.

Groups are individual and have no obligation to change how they operate, when and where they meet just because a current adherent or prospective member cannot physically reach, function, or participate in group activities. In other parts of life, we do demand accommodations in work environments and with spaces designed for public access, such as hotels, bathrooms, buses, airports, and sidewalks. But generally not in our groups.

Ethical questions
Ethically speaking, this raises the question: Should groups and individual traditions change how they plan and facilitate their public rituals, meeting space, and teachings to allow for the needs of an aging population? Or should it be an issue that rests squarely with the individual to determine whether a tradition or path’s restrictions are acceptable? While we accept that accommodations for wheelchairs are necessary for the workplace or for use of sidewalk, do we consider the same with regard to the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological requirements for our traditions?
Yes, this is a tricky question and situation. If your tradition is very vigorous and a Seeker fighting a chronic illness or recurring cancer wishes to join your group, do you modify the requirements or do you turn the person away?

There is no easy answer to this situation. We can’t know how often solitaires practice alone only because they face the lack of access on some level. On a personal level, I like to think that we find the tradition and groups that not only fit who we wish to be, but also who we are at present.

For those who have traveled from tradition to tradition throughout the years by choice, it may be a bit easier to move on; however, the hurt and resentment can remain.

Aging-in-place – Pagan Style
Aging is not sexy. It is one the toughest jobs on the planet because we each will face mortality at some point. For those who live under the Pagan umbrella, I challenge you to consider how you will age “in-place” as a Pagan? I have often wondered whether a commune or other communal living situation is not the best option for those who are able to live well with others. A patchwork of connections, family by blood, and family by friendship or tradition can provide the assisted living or nursing home construct for those considering a Pagan-supportive environment.

As a community, we may never have the numbers within a single tradition, nor the desire by enough individuals to create a chain of assisted living centers or nursing homes that utilize Western and Alternative Medicine; we can consider how to form such connections before we do have need of them.

One recent solution used in the Netherlands  and in Cleveland, Ohio provides a potential answer: offer free housing to students within the compound of a nursing home or assisted living in exchange for volunteer services with the older residents. This can have many benefits for all parties. Students need innovative quality housing; older residents gain and pass on wisdom. All benefit from the interaction.

Perhaps there are Pagans who are willing to give it a try with the understanding that they may have need of such services one day in the distant future. With a mixture of young and old, the presence of aging Pagans would be a blessing and not an unusual site, as it can be now.

Aging Pagans, health care and hospitals. 
At the Paganicon discussion mentioned earlier concerning care for aging initiates and those who have given a lifetime of membership and service, one participant mentioned the benefits of requiring initiates to have a Power of Attorney, a Health Care Directive, a will, and other items related to eldercare and end-of life care completed. If the initiate is single or loses partnership(s) through the deaths or incapacitation of significant other(s), who will care for the individual? More important, how will the spiritual life that has sustained the initiate continue to be fulfilled once interaction with the very non-Pagan health care system begins?

If you have ever been hospitalized or if you have helped a Pagan loved one with his or her hospitalization, then you know that the health care system can be a frightening place for those who do not have the label of “Pagan.” We are at our most vulnerable and in need of support from our family, religious, spiritual, family of creation, and family of origin. Yet, how many Pagans would proudly put the label Pagan or Druid or Wiccan or Asatru or Kemetic on the line where it asks for one’s religious preference?

I once attended another talk during which that question got many hands raised to indicate how the individuals would not write anything, for fear of religious bias in the treatment of their health care issues. Some suggested writing none; one person suggested writing a particular individual’s name, without stating that the person was a member of a certain religious tradition. I must confess that I have started to keep the names of certain individuals from my own tradition and similar ones for my own spiritual and religious comfort to use in this exact type of situation.

Overall, these are hard questions. Like our society, the stereotypical myth about Pagans is that we are a culture of youth. The images of the old, like crones, are revered only to a point. Look at the number of panels, discussions, rituals, and entertainment options at any given gathering, and one thing is clear: youth still rules.

Is there anything wrong with that? No. We are called to embrace ourselves and our Gods however we wish as individuals and within our various traditions. Fun is a key part to gaining strength in community and within the self. We probably know how certain individuals who have been around long enough are trailblazing, forging a path that will care for the self with the love of the Gods.

As a fast growing segment of the religious population, part of the growing pains will be realizing how those who put it all out there in the 70s (or earlier), 80s, and 90s are no longer lithe and long-limbed, but rather have real human bodies in various physical states.

So should this be a pressing issue now?

It is the time to get ahead of the curve. Those who lead or have led groups may be considering retirement. As most Pagans do not belong to a Pagan-based church or very large groups, it is important to raise these questions and to start the conversation. We all have one thing in common: at some point, we will age. The choice as a community is how we will face that reality and turn it into the strength that aging can be.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.