Was in my twenties when I first thought of my sister, Mim, as like the opening illustration for The Cat That Walked By Himself – by herself, on her own solitary path, the wildest of all wild creatures. I admired her fierce independence. She was like the semi-feral cat that lets you stroke it – when it likes – and feed it – when it likes – and let it into the house on a nasty night, but who always makes it clear that there are no mutual obligations, that when it’s ready to be gone, gone it will be, without a backward glance or a nano second thought. I doubt she ever lost that wild sense of walking alone – when she was in her early 50s, Mim made a point of saying to me, “I bet you think I talk about you (our relationship) with my psychologist. Well, I don’t – your name never comes up.” Her pronouncement took me by surprise, but not for the reason she thought – – it had never occurred to me to think that my wild, semi-feral sister EVER brought up the topic of me (our relationship) because it was clear throughout her life that she had no interest in making it better.
My parents admired the appearance of independence. As far as I could tell, they always saw my sister & oldest brother as adamantly independent, which was weird since both of them fell considerably short of financial independence. That said, I grew up with the image of both as paragons of independent spirits.
Can still remember the rush of joy that whooshed through me when, in my early thirties, I first learned the word INTERdependence, a whole new concept to me & one which swelled my being from the moment we connected. Which explains why Declaring Interdependence, Chapter 9 of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, was such pleasure to read!
You know the drill – Rabbi Friedman is in italics, I am in plain type.
Anthropologist Jenny Keith and her colleagues had studied elders in several urban, suburban, and rural communities around the world. When they asked the question, “What scares you the most about growing old?” to elders at a suburban American community, the most frequent answer was, “Having to rely on others for help.” – – How to respond to this? From an eldercare pov, or from my personal experience? My own experience might help, so will go from there. My sister HATED relying on others for help, especially when she needed it most. So, like a lot of older people, she asked without asking. She’d phrase a request in a round-about way that got people to do what she wanted without her ever directly asking, therefore never having to feel obligated to return the favor. Mom did a form of this, as did other clients – Mom’s request “If you’re anywhere near the pharmacy, would you pick up...?” is still an inside joke with John – – she invariable was out of her must-take meds, but didn’t want to put herself in the position of a) having to ask & b) possibly being turned down.
My independent & proud of it mother-in-law had her own way of showing dread of asking for help. She would NOT let us help after she broke her hip (was mugged!) & she had been told NOT to walk up & down the stairs in her cozy house – – she got up & down the steps on her butt! But having John move in with her while she fully recuperated or – a thousand times worse – moving in with us was unthinkable to her “I can handle it myself” spirit.
Elders in an African village had a very different perspective. When they were asked, “What are you most looking forward to about old age?” many of them answered, “Having someone kind to take care of me.” For them, the experience of connection in being cared for was to to be cherished, not feared. – – Oh, to have more elders feel this way, to have more kind youngers eager to take care of them. It is the #1 quality that John & I bring to our eldercare – we are kind. Not patronizing, not fussing, not (worst of all) treating like a child or invalid – – simply kind, cherishing the opportunity to connect, not because they are relatives or friends, but because they are fellow travelers who’ve taken the long road far longer than us. We reach out from hospitality as much as to provide aid.
(In that African village) interdependence is a lifelong and community-wide way of life, so that need for care is not clouded by fears that dependency will threaten personhood. – – Here in the USofA, independence is glorified & busyness is raised to high art. Too many people define themselves by job titles or being a wife, a mother. Losing their roles typically leads to losing a sense of self. For them, dependency doesn’t threaten their personhood – it obliterates it.
Our North American (I’d narrow down to the USA – deev) culture views dependency as a disease. … Our culture exalts independence. We admire people who manage for themselves. We lionize those who ask nothing of others. … We like to imagine that we can continue to be totally independent as we grow older. – – see above
In the context of such an idealization of independence, those who find themselves “counting on kindness,” as social worker Wendy Lustbader puts it, find that they have failed , that they are somehow deficient. – – Both my mother & mother-in-law were remarkably independent – Mom M. got by quite well on her own, with a teensy bit of help every week from her one & only child; aside from the broken hip, she was healthy until the moment she was felled by a massive heart attack, in the snugness of her own home. As for my mother, multiple hospitalizations, her own broken hip & a torn rotator cuff that demobilized the full use of an arm meant she needed our help & support, always given & received with a light touch & tender heart. We were blessed to read – together – Still Here, by Ram Dass, which describes his experience of caring for his father & his own dependency after a stroke in his 60s – – the concepts he covers were already familiar to us, but he gave a language to wrap around them. They helped Mom feel like a partner in her care, which I’ve found to be key in helping clients feel a sense of control & empowerment. It’s why I never use the term “caregiver” with them – it’s always “care partner.”
(People who need care, who have) lost their sense of self-worth because of seeing themselves as only dependent have bought what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out is a way of judging people based on what they DO or PRODUCE rather than the value inherent in who they are. – – It feels like a lot of people have a very hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of anyone having value simply by sharing space on the same planet at the same time. It we aren’t doing, aren’t producing, then why take up space? This sense is going to get stronger as few & fewer people have contact with olders elders ancients in natural settings – around dinner tables in homes, at celebrations, doing fun things. When generations mingle on a regular basis, they have a chance to feel appreciation, enjoyment, pleasure in each other’s company.
I was blessed to live in a community where the majority of adults – from high school to ancients – gathered every Friday for supper & socializing. That was the norm, a generation ago. All ages rubbing shoulders, recognizing each other by sight even where there wasn’t a family or friend connection. Impossible for me to imagine what it’s like to grow up in today’s increasingly age segregated society.
“Just as the grandeur of the sun or an oak tree is not reducible to the functions it fulfills, so the grandeur of the human life is not reducible to the needs it is capable of satisfying.” ~ Rabbi Heschel ~ – – Am reminded of driving Mom up from INOVA/Alexandria (Virginia) to St. Mary’s/Langhorne (PA). Still paralyzed on one side, she’d been transferred to get additional care close to home. Once in the car – she did NOT want go by ambulance (she was claustrophobic) – she wouldn’t get out until we arrived at St. Mary’s. Mom wanted an ice cream cone & although we took the back roads home, there was nary a place for ice cream anywhere along our ramble. FINALLY, in Avondale, PA, we spotted a place, amidst farm fields, with a big sign “ICE CREAM.” I parked the car, windows up, air conditioner on, and went into get Mom a vanilla cone. As I waited, a young woman came up to me & asked, in a peculiar tone, “Is that your mother sitting out there in the car?” Thinking I was about to get slammed for leaving her alone, I was about to explain she was comfortable & all was well, when the woman continued – “I spotted her when I got out of my car & she smiled at me. Oh my gosh, I got such a strong sense of specialness!” THAT was someone seeing & appreciating & being awed by “the grandeur of the human life.”
We are all interdependent all of the time. – – Children need to be taught this & to see it in the lives around them. My mother & I were as interdependent at the end, when she was at home in hospice, as we were when she was making me lunch & brushing my hair. The acts changed, but the dynamic remained the same.
If it is true that we are enlarged by being in relationships of caring and giving, then we might well reexamine our denial and dread of dependency. – – And it has to start in our earliest years. Again, I was blessed to see seriously old people who could no longer do some things as well as they did, but they focused on what they could & appreciated the things that opened up because of their age. There are no easy answers for how to do this in today’s silo-ized society, but it is imperative that we do – quickly, because the window to turn things around is limited. It’s not a matter of “If not now, when?” but of “If not now, you can kiss it goodbye.”
We can change ourselves and our culture when it comes to interdependence. We can make conscious choices about searching for help. We can weigh the price of avoiding dependency. We can consider the possibility of living into a vision of an interdependent, interconnected world. – – While this nation started with a Declaration of Independence, it became a reality because thirteen separate colonies decided to band together into an interdependent whole committed to a common goal. We, as human beings, start out as dependent little ones, gain our independence, then mature into interdependence. Let’s start with that image as we lean into the vision of interconnection that is the highest state of human experience.
This chapter in Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older brought up memories of brilliant, funny, often acerbic Benita Acton Odhner, bed-ridden in her 80s by osteoporosis, who opened her home to her grandsons & their friends – her “boys” adored her & only seemed delighted to be at her beck & call. “Grandma”/”Aunt” Benita had the large house & the groceries, they had youth & a willingness to repay her hospitality in any way they could. The memory of that quite elderly lady in her beautiful bed jacket having a gab with a gaggle of young men – – an image I carry with me, 30+ years later. A sweet tableaux of wondrous interdependence.