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The Myth of Independence

It’s okay to ask for help

Man sitting alone on the pier watching a ship sale by.
Images by © JosephSpoon

“No man is an island,” said metaphysical poet John Donne back in the 17th century. I grew up knowing this quote and maybe you did too. I took it to mean that none of us is truly self-sufficient. However, our culture encourages the opposite notion.

Growing up, most of us were strongly encouraged to be as self-reliant and as independent as possible. Being clingy and dependent was seen as weakness and failure. We were praised when we could walk without help from others, read by ourselves, and learn to drive. I never even heard of interdependence until I was over 40. We saw the lone ranger as heroic and admired self-made people. We looked forward to the time were would be adults and on our own.

Women in my generation were given a bit more permission to be dependent. I got married at 21 so I never lived on my own until I was 81. But we believe in the myth of independence, too.

I have come to see a life continuum that goes from being totally dependent to interdependent and then back to dependent.

Dependent__________Interdependent ____________Dependent

Elder teaching grandson from a school workbook.
Images by © Astarot

We start life as totally dependent babies. And, at the end of life, we may or may not be totally dependent again. All the rest of our lives, even at our prime, we are interdependent. Our daily lives depend on a vast interconnected web of people and institutions to provide us with education, jobs, food, shelter, amusements, care, and safety. Others depend on us and our efforts. We are interdependent no matter how independent we might feel or what we proclaim about independence. 

Rarely heard compliment

As we age, our ability to be independent declines – but at astonishingly different ages and rates. As we age into our seventies and eighties and nineties, we still get praise for signs of independence, for essentially being on our own. We almost never hear someone say, “She accepts help so well,” or, “He knows when to lean on others,” or “She is so beautifully interdependent.” Most of us still try to minimize our degree of dependency as if it is some disease or terrible flaw. 

How many of you have heard someone who is 75 or 85 say something like “I am 65.” or “I am NOT old.” Denial about our aging is a big problem in this country. Many of us keep trying to go it alone without any help. We need to accept increasing amounts of help from others as a natural evolution of our lives. 

Boomer daughter helping her aging parent in the garden.
Images by © Lisa Weatherbee

Many older people don’t get the help they need. Adults with serious knee and hip problems, for example, may refuse to get walkers and postpone surgery. Many with hearing loss do not get hearing aids. People often still drive when their eyesight is compromised or even when they have advanced dementia. Getting help is still not acceptable to them. And media messages heralding going it alone perpetuate the myth of independence.

Waiting far too long to move where there is some help is another common mistake of aging people. Today, 27% of people over 60 in the US live alone, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. This is far more than the 16% who live alone in the 130 other countries in their study. Many older people delay making a move even when they are having great difficulties managing by themselves. What is most important to them is their independence. They do not want to burden their children. They continue to tell their family that they are doing fine when actually they are struggling.

Let’s start complimenting interdependence:

“She accepts help so well!”

I think of Maggie, a woman in her nineties with severe arthritis who lives alone out in the country. When I interviewed her, she told me with her gnarled hands it takes her two hours each day just to get dressed. But she wants to stay in her house. And she finds a way to do it. I have to admit I also didn’t want to leave my house even when my husband clearly needed more support. And when I did move, I felt sad for months. I know it is not that easy.

The reality is 1 in 5 adults are unpaid caregivers, according to an AARP report. These caregivers provide hours and hours of care for no pay and with little help from anyone. Often the caregiver goes for months and years without any time off. They remain stoical and on the job, endangering their health and their well-being. It is particularly harmful for caretakers over 65 years old.

U.S. polling data showing percentage of family caregivers by generation.

Older Men Are Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide

Suicide among older men over 65 is another problem in our society according to the National Council on Aging. Men over 65 have higher rates of suicide than any other group. Some say this is men’s response to the adversities of aging. Silvia Canetto, Psychology Professor at Colorado State University believes that major factors are the hidden cultural norms and toxic scripts that men live by. Many men see suicide as an act of masculine courage. 

Elder man finding comfort while petting calm cat friend.
Images by © creativefamily

My own research found that older men have few friends and few friendship groups compared to almost all women. I believe older men’s high suicide rate comes from this of lack meaningful relationships as well as their belief that independence, rather than being in a community, is a good life. We could all benefit from acknowledging the magic of being connected to others as I wrote about last year.

Dammit, Get Some Help

What so many aging people don’t get is that trying to do it all by themselves is dangerous and risky behavior. I want to tell them, “You have worked hard your whole life. Now is the time to acknowledge your needs and dammit, get some help.”

Son helping elder parent out of a car & into a wheelchair.
Images by ©

It will be a long time, I fear before our cities and towns become age-friendly communities that offer the accommodations and services that older people really need. It will be a long time before most people understand that none of us is truly independent….ever. 

Meeting the needs of the aging population will benefit people of all ages. It will bring more peace of mind and a better quality of life to older people and their families.

Self Care is a High Priority

I hope each of you will take a few moments to ponder three questions.

  1. What has been difficult/aggravating for you over the last few months?

  2. What would you really like to let go of in your life?

  3. Who or what can help you lighten the difficult parts of your life?

Reaching out to receive & offer help.

Dear readers, do your part to end belief in this toxic myth of independence. I’ll leave you with a quote from Erik Erikson, the wise psychologist who has written about adult development.

“Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other and the sooner we learn that the better for us all.”

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Apr 03, 2023

Polymyalgia rheumatica is the cause and the meds have taken most of my pains away. First time for me and hopping to be cured.


Mar 29, 2023

Your Newsletter is spot on with my present situation. I'm 80 and a big fan of doing it myself... without help. I'm also a big fan of doing it for others. I love to be independent and useful. I overdid it at the beginning of February, it's now late March and my entire body is inflamed and I'm nearly immobilized in constant pain waiting for test results. This event alongside your excellent Newsletter has finally convinced me it's OK to ask for help especially when it comes to manual labour. Hoping to get through this and live to practice your wise advice. Thank you for being there for us oldies. God bless you, Katharine. Paul

Katharine Esty
Katharine Esty
Apr 03, 2023
Replying to

Paul, it is hard to get over being independent & so many of us postpone getting help. I completely understand your situation. I'm glad you've had an ah-ha! moment & changed your attitude. So sorry about the pain & I hope for positive test results. Thank you for sharing your story.

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