Skip to content

Independence – Is That It?

Yesterday I was on my way to do a talk at Azaleahof in Stellenbosch on “How can I stay as independent as long as possible?” Driving through the beautiful Winelands my thoughts wandered far and wide. This has been one of my themes over the past 24 years – for Older People, Quality of Life is directly linked to independence in activities of daily living (bath/shower, eating, toileting, walking and dressing by oneself.) It makes sense. Or does it?

Our Western approach to living is all about becoming independent as soon as possible – walk on your own, ride your bike, finish school and get out of the house as soon as possible to start your own life. Be successful, which means that you are independent – start your business! Is it possible that in this process we are conditioned to not need others? In fact, it is a sign of weakness to admit to needing someone to support you. It is a fact that this attitude leads us away from family, and makes us create artificial and shallow friendships. Whilst Jung promoted ‘individuation’, I do not think he intended for us to become the sel sh, self-absorbed individuals that so many of us have become.

In my talk, I questioned this notion of independence and tested it with my very educated audience full of professors and doctors. I could see that it made them think – as it did me! Is it possible that this monster that creeps on so many of us, especially Older People, called LONELINESS, is a direct result of our obsession with independence? Our stoic, stiff upper lip attitude where we mind our own business – has this resulted in people being completely disconnected, seeing the need to ask for support as a weakness? The fight between children and their aged parents about moving out of the house, stopping driving and moving into a Retirement Place – what is that all about? Is it to maintain independence or is it to further alienate us from each other? To pass the responsibility to the ‘facility’?

We all live very busy and fast lives. We do not all have the means to support our older parents. But so many people live in communities that if they were more socio-centric, would support ageing in place. If asking for help is not seen as a weakness, we would create a civil society where people actually reach out, where they barter and gift, and where older people will be supported in intergenerational communities to live a life worth living, NOT necessarily an independent life, but a life worth living. If we reconsider our linear approach to ageing and see people being reabsorbed into a community, reintegrated and honoured for their contribution, the need for retirement homes will actually fall away. Yes, in South Africa safety and security is a major issues. However, I do believe that that is not the crux of people moving out of their homes.

Too often have I heard the phrase “We do not want to be a burden to our children”. What a horrid state of being would be if a relationship has deteriorated to the point where someone feels a burden. Can it be that it is this very feeling, this state of being, that impacts more severely on the ageing trajectory than physical ageing itself? Is this not what makes people ill? What makes them disconnect to the point where they live with memory loss and eventually dementia? Because they see no purpose, no role, they have no reason to get up in the morning. Our insistence on independence should be replaced by a consciousness of interdependence. Of truly connecting across neighbourhoods to support, nurture and honour.

We do not need to look very far down the road to find an older person living on their own who could do with a little bit of support. We need a serious change of mind around the phrase “So what are your retirement plans?” Over lunch, with my friend Lydia, we talk about the fact that more and more people are asking her and her husband (who have both recently retired) “what their plans are”. Like “do you have a funeral policy?”, are you prepared for the plague? Again, I want to reflect on my musings about friendships. Possibly the best long-term investment that anyone can make is cultivating authentic relationships. The type where you can be vulnerable, ask for support, trusting your innermost feelings to that person. It is about reciprocity – these deposits and withdrawals over many years will eventually start building up dividends. the same goes for family – don’t wait for them to call. You make the call.

My Grandmother never had one day where someone did not pop in for a cup of tea, good gossip and lots of laughter. She lived on her own for years, but I am sure she never had one moment of loneliness. See, she was a giver. You bring her a bunch of grapes, next time you will get a jar of grape jam. Or rusks, or biscuits, or some other form of a gift. You never left her house without feeling good and having a gift in hand. And she never looked far to find someone to help her x a tap, mow the lawn, move a piece of furniture to get a thread through the eye of a needle (that was usually my job).

Ubuntu. I believe that we have lost the art of community, and it is through this loss and disconnects that people age the way so many do. I do believe that because we are not truly connected, either to a community, nature or something bigger than ourselves that we become disconnected from ourselves and begin to lose our sense of belonging. Being mindful is the first step in repairing this world filled with so much loneliness. Reaching out, asking for support and help, being vulnerable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *