How to Use Family Rituals As Your Family Ages

Diane Gibson

by Diane Gibson, MA, Registered Provisional Psychologist

My elderly parents recently got the call. They had four days (four days!!) to decide whether they want to move from their rural family home of the last 55 years to a 600 sq. ft. assisted living residence in the nearest town. Since that call, there has been a tsunami of emotion from all ten of my family members.

The full spectrum of comments include “This is best for them! I want to die in this home! They will be so much safer! I can’t wait! Your mother always gets her way! Where will I stay when I come visit? I am too busy to deal with this! I can visit so many friends! I don’t want to move! I am so worried!“

As I go through my own personal struggle with this move, I realize that this is not about me or my brothers and sisters. It is about my parents. My siblings and I should not be debating if this is the right decision but rather realizing the importance of making their decision right. But how do we do this?

I began thinking about the importance of rituals. As a couple and family therapist, I speak often about family rituals. Rituals are an extremely important way to build connection and strong bonds.

For couples, suggestions such as a kiss when leaving and greeting each other, regular date nights, and celebrations for each partner’s accomplishments are some examples of rituals that may help couples to become closer.

For families, some contributing rituals might be sharing meals (no electronics), play dates, celebrating significant birthdays, holidays, and reading before bed. These are all wonderful examples of building family connection and instilling values in our children.

What I have never considered, until now, is the importance of these rituals when our parents are elderly and our family connections are tested. When adult siblings reunite, they seem to fall into their familiar family roles of the past. Adult family members can also bring forth new opinions and values due to life experiences and new family formations.

In the case of my family, we all want to do the right thing for my parents but we all have different ideas as to what the “right thing” may be. The reality is we should already know what our parents need and would appreciate. We just have to look back at the many family rituals we had when we were children and what values our parents were trying to instil in us.

I believe it will serve my family well to discuss the many wonderful memories of our rituals in order to bring forth the strength and resiliency of our family. I believe most families have the strength to get through the difficult times. Unfortunately, when times are tough, we often forget our assets and tend to focus on the negatives fostered by the challenge.

When a family is too entrenched in their problem story, it may be helpful to seek therapeutic input from a qualified family therapist. What is very important is that families take the time to remember and re-ignite their connections.

I can only hope that while my family tries to navigate through this transition my parents can feel a sense of pride that the rituals we had as a family developed love and compassion. These are the values that will help us deal with this difficult decision and transition.



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