Get ready for the parades, the cookouts, and the fireworks! This week, Americans are celebrating the Fourth of July, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. On that day, the Continental Congress announced that a new nation, the United States of America, had been formed, and ever since, the spirit of independence has been a positive, powerful, and even revered force in American culture.
But how does this national passion for independence impact those who aren’t self-sufficient? Does a culture that’s so focused on independence make senior citizens who need help feel “less than” and inferior?
Interestingly, in American literature prior to the Industrial Revolution, older adults were portrayed as mentors and advisers, people valued and respected for their wisdom and experience. But after the Industrial Revolution, there was a shift. Older adults began to be described more and more frequently as feeble and doddering, the kind of people who placed a strain on society. American culture began to favor those who are young, productive, and independent, and that trend continues to this day.
Americans Strive to be Independent at All Ages
Granted, most of us value being independent, not having to rely on others for our personal successes. As we develop from children to adolescents and then to adults, there is a steady progression towards independence that is admired and rewarded in our culture. As a proud parent of two millennials, I notice that I, too, strive for them to be independent in thought, actions, and spirit.
The challenge here is that my senior clients have that same desire for independence—so much so that, at times, it can be difficult from them to reconcile that as their bodies change, they may need help to manage the activities of daily living. Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of seniors, and I’ve seen them struggle to balance two competing ideas:
On the one hand, they’re living in a society that continually reinforces the value of youth and self-sufficiency. On the other, there’s the realization that independence wanes as we age and require assistance.
When the equilibrium shifts away from independence, many seniors become uncomfortable, afraid, and disengaged. They often fight against accepting the care they need, tuning out counselors, caregivers, and even family—all of which negatively impacts their sense of well-being.
What can you do to re-establish a senior’s sense of equilibrium? As a counselor or adviser, are there ways you can help your older clients accept the assistance they need without feeling “less than?”
“Interdependence” Offers Opportunities for Give and Take
My advice is to look at aging differently.
After all, “No man is an island,” as the poet John Donne wrote. We all need one another, whether we’re young, old, or somewhere in-between. So, let’s change the way we interact with older adults and help them re-establish a sense of balance by broadening our focus from independence to interdependence.
The concept of interdependence creates opportunities for people to give and take.
For instance, when a senior needs help and takes it in, it’s important to identify how they can reciprocate, to help them feel whole. No one is comfortable being on the receiving end all of the time, constantly feeling that you have nothing to offer others. But once you feel that you can give back and add something of value, it becomes easier to accept help.
Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Gray Panthers movement in 1970, was a fierce advocate for human rights and social justice, particularly as they apply to the elderly and disabled. Although she wasn’t a physically large woman, she commanded respect, and at one of her last public speaking events, here’s how she drove home the message of interdependence:
As two volunteers carried Maggie from her wheelchair onto the stage, she raised her fist into the air and shouted a simple message.
“I got it wrong all these years!” she cried out.
Those in attendance were aghast, and the room grew quiet. “Maggie was wrong? Wrong about what?” they murmured.
“I got it all wrong,” Maggie repeated. “It’s not about INDEPENDENCE; it’s all about INTERDEPENDENCE.”
After a short pause, the crowd went wild. They got it. Maggie was right. Independence will only get you so far. Ultimately, what’s more important is interdependence. With interdependence, you become a collaborator, someone who has the ability and the willingness to give and take.
That’s how you need to operate with older adults. Understand and respect their desire to maintain their sense of autonomy and independence, and when you offer assistance, find ways for them to reciprocate. When you do, you’ll re-set their equilibrium, making it easier for them to accept your help.
So as we celebrate Independence Day 2018 and give thanks to those independent spirits who came before us, I would also like to give thanks to those who valued, and continue to value, the contribution of others, and who through give and take shared in the collective pool of resources that all who came to our country brought with them.
In other words, a happy “Interdependence Day” to all!