Broadening the definition of independence
Independence does not equal being alone
November 23, 2010
The vast majority of us want to be independent and live in our own homes as we grow older, but how do you define independence? Does it match the American cowboy image of "rugged individualism" - going it alone and doing everything for yourself? Or is it closer to Stephen Covey's definition of independence: "The power to choose, to respond, to change"?
I believe that no one is truly independent of others. We have needed other people, with different skills and abilities, throughout our lives. Since childhood, we have relied on others for help and services, just as they rely on us. Can you build your own car? Produce all your own food? Make your own clothes? Why, then, do we assume that we are in some way diminished when we develop an incapacity or when we become older and perhaps need more help?
As a part of society, we are all interdependent on each other. At different times in our lives, we may be giving more services or help to others than we are receiving, but we are all still interconnected. If and when circumstances change, most of us can be assured that we will receive the supports we need to make the decisions we choose.
People who are born with a disability and who are now aging view themselves as successful - they've led long, productive lives despite challenges that most others have not faced. Conversely, many older people who become disabled tend to view themselves as failures, reacting to incapacity with both shame and fear. They don't want to admit they have lost skills and they certainly would never describe themselves as disabled. "It's not that bad." We hear people who are clearly in need of help saying, "I don't want to be a burden."
At certain times in our lives, our choices seem unlimited. Even if we don't make an active choice, things will probably turn out well for us. However, when circumstances change and our choices become more limited, we must take an active role in evaluating what is available. That effort can empower us to seek the assistance we need. Becoming more interdependent on others does not mean we become less independent.
People with long-term disabilities understand that accepting available assistance and accommodations does not make them dependent. Instead, it frees them to find different approaches to life to fulfill their choices. As we grow older, we may lose some of our previous skills, but available supports can help us continue to engage in the activities we choose.
Some people say, "People want to be independent, so leave them alone." While that sounds logical, we have learned that independence does not equal being alone and lonely. We all need to re-examine and perhaps broaden our view of independence and what it really means to become or remain independent.
A person who is more interdependent and connected with the community will more likely realize benefits to his or her physical, mental and emotional well-being, as well as meeting the goals that person sets.
About Aging Issues
Twice each month, the Ohio Department of Aging delivers Aging Issues, a column from Director Barbara E. Riley that examines topics of interest to older Ohioans, their family members and others who care for and serve them. Aging Issues is intended for personal use as well as re-publication in newspapers, newsletters and other publications with older adults as a target audience.
Subscribe to Aging Issues...
Read older columns...
Send this page to a friend …