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A Rite of Elderpassage

category_bug_journal2.gif We humans have numerous rituals to celebrate important events. Some are one-time, special occasions like baptisms for babies, confirmations and bar or bat mitzvahs at around puberty, marriage (well, not too many in a lifetime) and funerals. Others come ‘round regularly – birthdays and anniversaries, for example.

Many of our celebrations involve special foods and music, recitations of text and clothing just for the occasion. Our rituals give context to and mark our passage through life. They strengthen social bonds, renew commitments, are demonstrations of respect or faith and, sometimes, are conducted for the pleasure of the observance itself.

There is one U.S. ritual, however, that is not remarked upon and as far as I have noticed, not widely recognized as a rite of passage: signing up for Social Security. I did that yesterday.

For all my life, 65 was the “official” U.S. retirement age, the birthday on which all workers and some others become eligible for Social Security. In the past few years, the government has been raising the age at which full benefits are given and for me, having been born in 1941, it is 65 and eight months – December 2006.

During the past two or three weeks, I checked the Social Security website and knew I needed a certified copy of my birth certificate, my tax return for 2005 and my checking account number to arrange direct deposit of my benefit. I had those, but when I tried to sign up on line – twice – the link to that page was broken.

That didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the enrollment, if I could catch the webpage on a day it was working, would happen without a glitch, and as time went by, I began thinking that becoming a Social Security beneficiary is too important an event to toss off with an online form.

Nothing else we do marks our passage into old age. Oh, some have retirement parties when they leave their last full-time job, but with fewer people working at the same company for many years as in the past, retirement celebrations are less common and, anyway, it doesn’t rank up there with birthdays and bar mitzvahs. When was the last time anyone got a gold watch?

We have written and argued here for almost three years about the age at which someone becomes old. Obviously, it is a fluid designation - a different time for different people - and some refuse to be categorized as such at all.

But the whole reason Time Goes By exists is to exercise my curiosity about what being old is really like and receiving a monthly retirement benefit from the Social Security Administration is a pretty good signal that one is no longer young – or even middle-aged.

So I decided to make a private ritual of it, to mark the day when I became an official old person.

I could have called the SSA 800 number, but that's no better a ritual than a webpage form. So at about 8:45AM yesterday, I packed up my papers and drove to the local Social Security office – a dank little building down the street a short way from a strip mall where, inside, a police officer moonlighting as a guard sat reading a war novel. I was there at 9AM, early enough to be fifth in line.

After a 30-minute wait, I was called to the counter. “Social Security number?” the woman asked. Then, instead of “what is your name,” she asked “who are you?” Since I am more than my name, I liked that and decided on the spot that it was an auspicious beginning for my little ritual.

Another wait of 15 minutes and then a different woman, Mrs. Ortiz, called me into her cubicle. Like me, she is from New York City – Brooklyn, to be precise. Moved to Portland, Maine three years ago with her husband and two small children. We had a fine old time talking about what we like about Portland and what we miss and don’t miss about New York.

It was nearly an hour we spent together looking at my papers and leisurely filling out forms while I swore to the facts that I’m not a felon or a fugitive, am not lying about anything and understand my rights.

Except that the Social Security office is as drab and dull and gray as all government agencies and, oddly, neither Mrs. Ortiz nor any other employee I could see had a single personal item in their cubes – not even a box of Kleenex – it was the best experience I’ve ever had with a bureaucracy. Pleasantries were exchanged as if we might have been seatmates who had never met before at a wedding dinner. Questions were asked and answered. Computer keys clacked in response and a printer whirred.

As the final step in our ceremony, we shook hands to affirm that my new status had been ritually achieved. I was now a Social Security beneficiary and, in the lights of the U.S. government, I had become an official old person.

Aside from whatever number of additional birthdays the gods grant me and unless I marry again, this was the final rite of passage before my funeral. Mrs. Ortiz may or may not have realized it, but she made it feel like the ritual I wanted. And to celebrate my "coming of age", I had a glass of wine with dinner. Whooeee!


I get to be the first to say Mazal Tov!

Sounds much better than a broken link on a website...
If we can rid ourselves of the current administration, you may be able to draw your social security benefits well into old age!

welcome to our club, ronni! brought back memories of my own induction though yours was far more personal. your description calls out for a musical finale with flashbulbs popping.

Congratulations Ronni. I'm just in the midst of doing the same thing...only I'm applying for my husband's SS benefits, since he passed away last year. I'm legally able to collect his benefits when I turn 60...which will be in January. I've completed the application, but they need a copy of my birth certificate and my marriage license; which I am in the process of getting together. My SS office was very similar to yours; and with very pleasant people working there as well. I had to register in by computer and get a number. I didn't have to wait very long at all, even though the room was pretty full by the time I went there in the afternoon. My number got called before some others who had been waiting, but I'm sure it was because of the category you enter when you register on the computer. All in all, it was a pleasant enough experience. Now when I go back with these certificates, I'll know what to expect. Congrats again Ronni!

Congratulations, Ronni, and welcome to the club. I think that the IRS is probably the best-run beaurocracy around. With Medicare and with IRS, I dealt with knowledgable people who were efficient but friendly. (I should have known to expect that. My mother worked for IRS in the 1950s.)

That was such a cool story. I have never heard someone celebrate such a moment, except of course, privately. You make me feel good knowing I will be there one day and I don't have to feel old and washed up or anything of that nature.

Have you sent Mrs. Oritz the link to this entry? I'm sure she would love to know that she did such a wonderful job helping to usher you into this next stage of life.


Congratulations on a ritual well addressed. I suspect that people who deal with Social Security "Induction" have much more pleasant experiences than other officials.

I love the idea of creating a ritual for entering a new phase of life!

Great post.

Well, congrats to you "old person" according to our government. (smile) This was a great post and I can see you enjoyed the physical action of this rite-of-passage. Enjoy all the many years ahead. (And don't spend all that money in one place)


Get out the party hats, Champagne, and confetti.



"Ya Hooo, It's a celebration,
Ya Hooo, It's a celebration

Celebrate good times, come on,
Celebrate good times, come on,

There's a party goin on right here,
A celebration, to last throughout the years,
So bring your good times, and your laughter too,
We gonna celebrate your party with you, come on now

Celebration...Let's all celebrate and have a good time.
Celebration...We gonna celebrate and have a good time.

It's time to come together, it's up to you, what's your pleasure?
Everyone around the world come on!

Ya hoo..It a Celebration, Ya Hoo...,

Celebrate good times, come on, come on and celebrate
Celebrate good times, come on, and everything's gonna be alright.

(Celebration) We're gonna have a good time tonight, let's celebrate, it's alright
(Celebration) We're gonna have a good time tonight, let's celebrate, it's alright

Ya Hooo, Ya Hooo

Celebrate good times come on, Let's celebrate, come on now
Celebrate good times come on, Let's celebrate, come on and celebrate
Celebrate good times come on, Let's celebrate, come on now
Celebrate good times come on, Let's

Happy coming of age, Ronni!
In this country, people have retirement parties. I must say that I did everything in my power to avoid one ;)
I just started on an eternal holiday.
Still dazed Claude

Congratulations, Ronni. My experience at the Social Security Office was very pleasant, too. I was surprised at how efficiently and effortlessly the ritual was.

Congratulations, Ronni. My experience at the Social Security Office was very pleasant, too. I was surprised at how efficiently and effortlessly the ritual was handled.

Congratulations Ronnie! You're right, there should be more of a fuss made over this rite of passage. Looks like all your pals here aren't going to let your latest milestone go un-celebrated. Lucky you!

Congratulations on being a full-fledged significantly "older" person! I have no difficulty thinking of you as an "elder" and not just because you're older.

I've had two visits to the SS office. The first when I signed up for my benefits for which I had worked and contributed over many years. As I recall, it was very matter-of-fact, but pleasant.

The second time, more recently, my dtr accompanied me to the SS office when I made the transition to widow's benefits. I recall a very efficient, warm and caring woman government employee who eased me through the experience, while making certain I understood exactly the financial transition which was occuring. I had previously been aware of what to expect should I become a widow.

This financial transition meant an immediate significant decrease in my income, since I was abruptly, now, only entitled to the equivalent of my husband's benefits -- the same as any widow who never paid into SS at all, except through her husband's salary.

There are various ways to view this seeming inequity with which my abrupt income change made me acutely aware, since major home upkeep was undertaken predicated on both SS checks in our household for the remainder of the calendar year.

I prefer to think of this SS feature as a way to insure that no adult woman is left without a minimum income for necessitites in her older years whether or not she directly paid in funds.

This is what a truly civilized society is about -- caring for our citizens -- including all our women.

At a time when caring and assisting ALL of our citizens seems to matter little to our government, I can only hope a new congress will take the necessary steps to insure the preservation of a solvent Social Security system for future generations -- beginning for our children and grandchildren.

I have never held much with ritual except for a very few such events, as there sometimes seems to be an over abundance of them. I do respect all those rituals which are important to others, so we likely need many. I do understand the significance they are purported to have in our culture and others.

I think your point, Ronni, is well-taken, that a ritual observance might well be in order for that day when our society judges that we have truly become of a significant older age. We are deserving of a CELEBRATION as Chancy has noted above. Glad you had yours. I lift my glass to you.

Let me join the others who have wished you congratulations, Ronni. I am grateful each month when that check is automatically placed in my bank account enabling me to be self sufficient. Lets all give thanks to President Roosevelt who made this program possible. It is truly something to celebrate.

From my vantage,you're just a kid, or maybe just middle-aged.

Both my experience with the nice folks at the SSI office and my county tax appraiser's office when I signed up for my senior real estate discount were a pleasant surprise. The real celebration for me came with the first deposit of my social security benefit. After years of working, what a thrill for the government to give ME money! Be sure to save a bit of wine for your second celebration in December.

Heya Ronni and everyone else, I feel completely stupid but I have lost (husband erased) all the emails those of you sent to send on to my Grandpa, and since this is the only way I know how to contact everyone I came here! I really want to say thanks to Lucy, Jehnet and Joann and of course Ronni, I also believe there was a Claude in there too, your kind words and showing of support never fail to surprise me.

Grandpa is still doing as best as can be expected. He is on some heavy pain meds and uses a wheelchair when he needs to get around. Otherwise he pretty much stays in bed. He doesn't get on his computer anymore, but talks with my Dad quite often. Next time I talk to him I will ask for a weather update for you all and hopefully Ronni can get it posted were everyone can see.

Again, I am sorry that I lost everyones personel email and I would love it if you all emailed me again so we could write!

Thanks again everyone. Milt's grand daughter, AMBER

P.S. Hey Ronni congratulations on the celebration! :)

I strongly believe in the value of ritual so hooray to you for telling us all about yours. Sounds like a really nice day.

Well, it's nice to know that applying for regular Social Security is such a breeze. Applying for S S Disability is quite the opposite. You could die of whatever your disability is before receiving one cent.

I love that you turned what might have been a chore into happy ritual. I don't think we have enough rituals in our lives to mark important events. When I turned 50, I threw myself a "welcome the Crone" party. My colleagues at work did get together to celebrate my retirement. It was very informal, held in our workplace. Because I was a ballroom dancer, they brought in a couple to teach everyone some Salsa. And then danced. And ate. It was a great way to mark the end of several important parts of my life.

Happy positive ritual. That first check is like a gift/mistake/something for nothing(only 50 years for me). My thoughts go to my children in their 40's having put into Soc.Sec. and perhaps never seeing any of it. Congrats.

What a lovely vignette, Ronni. Thank you so much for directing me here. It's the rituals that count, and this is a huge change. And I am so not alone. I have been practicing gratitude like crazy the past 6 months, and you are one of the people I am thankful to know. I will envision my own retirement celebration and make it happen :)

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