Welcome to my resurgence. A resurgence is “an increase or revival after a period of little activity, popularity, or occurrence.” So, a revisionist gerontologist is having a resurgence on interdependence.
In 2017 my second Being Heard blog was on interdependence. As I am reentering life after the pandemic, and on the heels of July 4th, I thought this a great opportunity to resurge with some thoughts on interdependence.
Happy Interdependence Day 2021! A celebration of our interconnection.
If the pandemic has taught me anything (and it has taught me a lot), it is that we need each other. We are interdependent. How could we have gotten through this without each other?
During COVID, it was interdependence that resulted in many, many health professionals holding the hands of people who were ill and dying without their families and friends present – so that they would not be alone.
It was interdependence that showed up in our bringing food to neighbors who were not able to leave their homes because they were at high risk for COVID.
It was interdependence that drove us to wear masks to protect each other.
Yet, we still cling to this idea that we need to be independent. This thinking contributes to us being disconnected from each other, and we do not see ourselves in each other. We lose our sense of shared humanity.
Has COVID not taught us about shared humanity, that we are interconnected and impact each other?
Maybe it is a good time to talk about interdependence. Maybe COVID has opened some wounds about independence and what it means to be interdependent.
I’m listening. And curious. Where does this overfocus on independence come from?
Our individualistic western society places heavy emphasis on independence in general. We operate under an illusion that everything we do is on our own, with no help from others, thank you very much. I don’t need nobody! To need others, to need help, is seen as weak. Then you are dependent on others, which is seen as very bad.
Yet. Independence is an illusion.
Yes, I said it. It is an illusion. It is a myth that our culture perpetuates. It lives there with the other mythical illusions, like perfectionism.
I am not truly independent. I am often dependent. These words I write are fueled by years of learning from others, from collaborations. This laptop on which I type – well, it is maintained through virus protection, VPN’s, backups, etc. by my “tech support” husband. As I walked with my dog this morning, engaged in training to teach him to control his need to say hello to every dog in the neighborhood, it is not I who came up with this training program. It is a fellow volunteer in the dog rescue in which I am involved. When I have been unwell, I rely on others to help me heal, to support me.
As we get older it seems that a focus on independence becomes even stronger. It seems to carry even more weight in our daily lives and our culture.
This illusion of independence as we grow older is further perpetuated by my beloved field of Gerontology. I love you Gerontology, but we need to take some responsibility for this one.
In the field of aging, “staying independent” is considered an “ideal”. It is woven through programs, research, policy, and practice as a driver of services and even as a desired outcome. It is a driver in that the purpose of X program is to “keep people independent”. As an outcome, X program is successful if X number of people “remain independent”. Underlying the ideas of “aging in place” and “successful aging” is the notion of independence. We send the message to older people all the time that to be independent is the best they can be and something to strive for (as if it is something that is entirely under our control).
Understandably, Gerontology likely focused on independence as a major goal because it wanted to dispel the idea that older people are dependent – defined as sick, frail, not contributing to society. But perhaps this current focus on independence is an overcorrection that we need to revisit.
What does it really mean to be independent anyway?
It is actually unclear. Although it is variably defined, it generally is thought to be a person who lives in his/her own home, with little or no formal support. In some cases it might simply be a person who does not need assisted living or a nursing home. In nursing homes and assisted living, we might use that term to describe someone who needs little or no support in a particular daily activity, like dressing, So, according to this definition of independence, a person living in a nursing home who volunteers to read to children, but needs help dressing, is not “independent”. A person living with dementia who relies on a transportation service to get to her church, but cannot drive on her own, might not be considered “independent”.
The underlying message is that to be “independent”, requiring less or no support from others, is good.
We need to consider not putting independence on a pedestal. Why?
First, why should independence be the primary goal of aging/living? What about well-being? Happiness? Joy? Meaning??!!!
Second, when we perpetuate the idea of independence as the ideal, it contributes to othering. “Those people” are not independent – they are DE-pendent. They clearly did something wrong! I don’t want to be like those people. Relatedly, this allows for people to feel as if not meeting the false ideal of independence means they are failing. They are failing at aging or life. (Not true.)
Third, if we feel social pressure that we have to be independent, that this is the measure of our success, we might not seek out supports that could facilitate us reaching these other goals, like well-being, joy, and meaning. We might feel shame in asking for help. We might deny that we need help. By not getting support, we might actually contribute to our own disabilities. We might disable ourselves, rather than enable ourselves.
How do we move from independence to interdependence?
Perhaps we need to unpack some things.
First, we might unpack what independence means for us, so that we can determine what elements of independence need to be better understood. Maybe there are elements of how we define independence that we need to uphold.
One example is privacy. If to be independent means to have privacy, people have a right to privacy, regardless of what supports they might need. We need to value privacy.
If to be independent means to exercise one’s autonomy, including not having people make decisions for you, we need to learn how to better navigate autonomy, and how to be with people in partnership that supports what is important to them as well as health, safety, etc. (More on this in an upcoming blog!)
We might also unpack what it means to be dependent. There are such negative connotations with being dependent on others or other things, especially as we get older. What are our fears related to dependency? I have heard people say that they don’t want to lose themselves. That they don’t want to lose control over their own lives. How can we see each other, not for what we need or don’t need, but for who we are as human beings? How can we ensure people have control? How can we help each other see that dependence is not just loss – it is also gain? Through dependence on another person or another thing, we might gain the ability to do something, even if if looks different than it did before. That’s perseverance.
Of course, we need to unpack interdependence. What does it look like? How do we practice it?
Interdependence has been broadly defined as being based on “the premise that in reality human relationships are based on mutual dependence, exchange, and partnership.” This is a beautiful idea, but maybe not super clear or simple to practice. Perhaps we need to define interdependence more clearly. For me, to better understand interdependence it is helpful to consider what interdependence is and what it is not. Let’s start with what it is not, from my perspective.
What Interdependence Is Not
Interdependence does not mean that you entirely give up what you want because you need something from another person. A central component of interdependence has to be knowing what is important to each of us, sharing this with others, and collaborating so that this is honored to the best degree possible.
Interdependence does not mean being purely dependent on another. We are mutually dependent. The nature of that balance changes, as it does throughout life. The nature of interdependence is such that our needs and wants are known and honored. Being purely dependent on another would mean that our own desires are not considered. This would not be interdependent.
Interdependence does not mean that we give up independence. To be independent means that we have needs and wants. Our human rights are upheld in interdependence, which includes rights to privacy, self-direction, well-being, meaning, joy…..
Interdependence also does not mean that we continually deny others the opportunity to help us. Interdependence is not independence with just more letters in the word. Interdependence means considering that being there for each other and supporting each other is a gift to each other, for both those who give and receive.
Interdependence is not always “balanced”. There are times when we need more than others. There might even be times when what we can give someone else is very little, and what a person can get from another feels small.
Interdependence does not mean we support each other in the most perfect way with no compromise in how we support each other. It isn’t perfect.
Interdependence is not just about doing things for each other. It is being there for each other.
So, what is interdependence? What might some “key ingredients” to interdependence be?
What Interdependence Is
A key part of interdependence is autonomy. For all parties involved. That might seem counterintuitive to a person who sees interdependence as losing autonomy, but autonomy is central to interdependence because we all have needs and wants. One person might have a need for support and the other person might want or need to offer that support. We need to be willing to share with each other and listen to each other. That means that we have to know each other and trust each other.
Which brings me to another key part of interdependence – trust.
When we are dependent on each other, when we seek support from others, and give support, we have to have trust in each other. This looks like:
- I trust that you will share with me what you need, and what is important to you.
- I ask that you will trust me to let you know what I can and cannot do. How I can support you and how I cannot support you.
- I trust that you will honor my perspective, and you trust that I will honor yours.
Perhaps other key parts of interdependence, which we need to devote more attention to, are humility, openness, and adaptation. Giving or receiving help to each other is never perfect. We don’t always exactly get the type of help we want or need, and we don’t always give it in the most perfect way. So, perhaps we also have to approach interdependence with a sense of kindness and empathy for each other. Just like we need each other, we are also doing the best we can, and we try to do better.
Living in the spirit of interdependence might change the nature of our conversations as we grow older or grow with dementia. Maybe we can find other ways to approach difficult conversations about supports a person might need, that are less driven by the need to “manage” people, and more driven by mutual needs and perspective-sharing.
With all this said we still struggle with how to practice interdependence in reality, how to truly support each other as we change and grow throughout life. There are realities that a person with dementia might have difficulty making decisions and might be dependent on another person helping them make decisions, or making decisions on their behalf. In these spaces, how do we continue to be interdependent when the balance shifts so that we are taking more of a role in supporting a person? How do we practice interdependence when a person’s choices are compromising their health or safety? How does interdependence look when a person needs a high level of care and the person providing support feels that they are no longer receiving anything from that person?
It is in these gray areas that we need to consider how to live interdependently.
Interdependence is not all rainbows and butterflies. In many ways, it requires us to be acknowledge our universal human vulnerabilities, that we are all imperfect, that we all get sick, and that we all will die. Definitely not rainbows and butterflies.
There is value in this acceptance of vulnerability. We recognize that it not just other people who get sick, who get dementia, who need support, but it is I.
We need to be open to the possibility that we might need help or support. That we might have dementia or illness. That accepting support from someone might enable us to do the things we want to do and live the life we want. It helps us to think about difficult questions like how do I move to a place of acceptance in which I might consider that a walker can help me to continue to do the things I might like to do, like going to a concert?
Although independence might be held up as an ideal or goal by many, we need to consider that it might actually be unrealistic, unproductive, or even detrimental to our well-being. To not accept support, in name of being independent, could have negative consequences, like keeping me from living the way I want. Fierce independence can even be disabling. Interdependence, including support from others or adaptive devices, can be enabling.
Perhaps independence is held up as an ideal because we don’t have a better ideal for which people can strive as they get older. Like a meaningful life. Perhaps interdependence is not seriously considered because we feel there are few opportunities for us to practice reciprocity as we grow older. Perhaps we feel that no one wants to take what we have to give. Perhaps a new paradigm of growing older could include interdependence as an ideal. And if practicing interdependence might help us achieve a meaningful life, would we more likely accept it?