TWH –Pagan and polytheist religions, or at least the modern versions of them, have only been publicly practicing for a few decades at best. Therefore, a relatively small number of practitioners have entered into an elderhood which requires residence at a nursing home or other long-term-care facility. Those numbers are only likely to grow in the coming years.Timothy Anderson (Timotheos) is a program director for an assisted living facility, and while he isn’t aware of any Pagans or polytheists at his job, the issue is close to his heart. Anderson recently made a presentation on Paganism at a conference of the National Certification Council for Activity Professionals, to help his peers recognize people who practice one of these minority religions.
“By law, they must be allowed to practice their faith,” he explained, but ignorance of what that entails can be an impediment. Indeed, staff members must even assist residents unable to practice without help, so long as that doesn’t interfere with the rights of others. That might mean allowing a resident to maintain an altar in their room, or perhaps helping that resident lift an athame to salute the directions.
Gloria Cummings (Vesta Brightstar) spent the last 25 years of her nursing career in long-term-care facilities, before retiring in 2011. “As a community, I don’t think we understand how the environment is,” she said.
“The spiritual supports available are overwhelmingly Christian.” Lacking a specifically Pagan nursing home, she expects that the growing number of Pagan residents will have to advocate for themselves more than their monotheist neighbors.
“Paganism is so very young,” Cummins notes, that that there are far fewer practitioners past their 70s. “We really don’t like to think about aging.”
Like many life activities, religious ones to be curtailed by other rules governing such facilities, which is why Anderson recommends giving thought to what’s most important ahead of time. “Make a list of the bare minimum needed to practice, and tell them,” he said. “It’s like going back to college, with no candles or incense allowed. People must be prepared to adapt.”
When one is making a list about what’s critical to one’s practice, it is also appropriate to consider what advance directives might be desired when it comes to extraordinary life-saving measures, end-of-life care, and disposition of one’s sacred items and estate. Anderson sees all these questions as part of the systems to put into place to guard against a time when making decisions itself is impossible.
He notes that any of these documents “can be changed at any time.”
Cummins didn’t recall ever encountering a patient who she knew was Pagan or polytheist, and she has two competing theories as to why. On one hand, many of her contemporary co-religionists may simply choose to identify as “spiritual, not religious,” which she has herself claimed on forms to avoid a hassle.
On the other, many elders she’s known have simply passed on when the time comes, without the need for extensive care of this type. “That’s what I want to do,” she admitted. “With a lot of Pagans, when it’s time to check out, we check out.”
Not everyone is public about their religious practices, and many people are not even out to their children about what they believe and do. In the long run, becoming more open about that information may become very important when it comes to geriatric and end-of-life care. “If family dynamics are an issue be clear about things like not allowing family members to pray over you,” Anderson said. “The tough reality is that we are not going to be independent for the rest of our lives,” and may need assistance not only practicing, but advocating as well.Cummins feels that coming to terms with being open about one’s religion can make a big difference, especially for those who belong to spiritual communities. “Perhaps their high priestess can visit,” she said, or a resident can take advantage of the occasional overnight stays out of the facility to stop into a festival or observe an important rite. “A lot of people don’t realize that’s an option, without losing their benefits,” she said. When it comes to advocating for religious expression, “It’s important to weigh the benefits of being public.”
Questions Anderson suggests asking include, “How would my practice change if I couldn’t walk, or couldn’t see? What if I am not allowed to have a knife? What religious care would I need if I were to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease? What can we not live without?” When it comes to practicing one’s religion, “What services are we looking to get?
As for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, Cummins didn’t recall any patient on those wards “who talked about their goddess, or anything like that.” It can be tricky to recognize Pagans who were private about their faith prior to being stricken, as they frequently respond to music they were familiar with in youth, which may include Christian hymns. “It may be that the elders who are able to set up altars in their rooms are cognitively intact, and don’t need our help.”
“They may not know what we do,” Anderson explained. “Be blunt. Ask, ‘Can I do that here, or do I need to look elsewhere?’ It will save the rigamarole if, for example, they have a ‘no altars’ rule.” He said it’s also important to remember that private rooms are a rarity in all types of elder-care facilities, and that other accommodations might be necessary for even solitary observances. For groups visiting to practice together, it might even be necessary to rent a room. Again, it’s important to confirm the rules around what’s acceptable in such a space, such as the presence of open flame.
Healing and other magical work is also something which should, if at all possible, be discussed in advance of admission to a facility. Practices such as entering altered states and the usage of herbs should be hit upon, and it’s possible that a waiver may need to be signed whether or not the staff doctor approves them from a medical standpoint.
Cummins and her husband are in their 70s, and should she have to move into a long-term-care facility she has every intention of availing herself of all healing modalities, both medical and spiritual, that she can. However, home care is the option that they would prefer.
It’s not uncommon for Pagans or polytheists to be in non-traditional relationships, either. “You should explain those dynamics before you walk in the door,” said Anderson, again to avoid expending effort justifying them after the fact.
Staff members at facilities should also be asked about spiritual matters, in Anderson’s view. “Do they have a spiritual care coordinator? A chaplain? What does person do?” He estimates that in perhaps 90% of facilities, the activities director is given oversight of spiritual nurture among their many other duties, rather than hiring either of those specialists instead. It’s not inappropriate to find out if the person in charge of spiritual activities understand the needs of a polytheist or Pagan. “Can a non-monotheist have option here?” is what he suggests finding out.
Preparing for this silver tsunami in Paganism should not solely fall on those who are themselves aging, either. “The Pagan community needs to be available to people who can’t get to circles and services,” Anderson said.
Pagans and polytheists should also be working on outreach now, Anderson said, before too many more community members have need of such services. “We are a minority,” he said, and “we need to have this conversation from a place of education.” That should include an explanation that there are many different Pagan faiths, else even those who have a passing familiarity may make incorrect assumptions. “If you’re not Wiccan, say so,” he said.
Given the number of people whose practice is entirely solitary, Anderson is of the opinion that “all priests need to be ready for phone calls from strangers,” even those who practice an entirely different Pagan faith. While members of the community have made inroads into chaplaincy, finding a Pagan one in a nursing home is still nigh unto impossible. An alternative he’d like to see is a resource list of chaplains willing and able to visit via Skype or another video platform.
An alternative to living in a facility is aging in place with some sort of home care provided, such as Cummins desires for herself. Even then, Anderson cautions, it’s important to ask questions before retaining a service. “Does the system support the right to practice?” he asked. “Will the aides assist in getting to the home altar or reading prayers? I’ve heard horror stories of conversion by home-care professionals, which is illegal and wrong.” That’s a case where filing a grievance should be done as soon as possible, in his view.
Cummins and Anderson agree that these conversations need to be happening more often in the various Pagan communities. The success of a religious revival can in important ways be judged based on how its elders are honored and cared for.
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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.