Declaration of INTERdependence – Chapter 9

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.

Finding Wholeness… – Chapter 4

The chapter heading ~ Finding Wholeness As Our Bodies Break Down ~ IS the very essence of Mom’s experience inching upward toward triple digits.  At 90, she wrote – “As the years tick by and my fixtures and fittings become unglued and the ‘fur’ is loved off, a stronger sense of being Real has moved forward.”  Am quite sure she would have written out the Maya Angelou quote that kicks off the chapter – “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”  – to keep on her night stand.

What a blast she would have had, sitting down with Rabbi Dayle Friedman, sharing her thoughts on Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, mixing in some of her Swedenborgian wisdom on becoming an “Ancient”!

Rabbi Friedman is in italics, my comments (or Mom’s) in regular font:

While we cannot realistically dream of escaping physical limitations or suffering as we grow older, we can hope for wholeness. … Just as we can grow to appreciate the preciousness of each stage of the rose, we can come – with effort – to greater peace with our aging bodies. – – I’ll let Mom take this... “A favorite saying of mine for many moons is ‘Old age ain’t for sissies.’  Actually, managing to get to 90 relatively sound of heart, mind and body (or  any one or more of those three) indicates some grit.  As I inch closer toward  triple digits, being old has gotten a lot easier.  Somewhere around my late  80s, I began to see the humor and humanity more in things, to take upsets  less personally and put them more easily into perspective.”


The spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who suffered a devastating stroke in his sixties, works to great each pain or physical discomfort with tender compassion, saying, “Ah, so, even this.” – –  Handing it again to Mom…  “For whatever reason, growing feeble, infirm and even forgetful is part of the  Lord’s grand scheme.”


We can try contemplative practice to help us be with a pain or soreness, opening to what exactly the experience is like instead of bracing ourselves against it. – – Yep, back to Mom… “Moving out of that hanging-on state to one of accepting that the  body is a temporary shelter designed to house our eternal soul could be  compared to moving out of darkness and confusion toward lightness and the  light.”


We are more than our bodies. … What may help us is to let go of anger at ourselves, or at aging itself, and honor our bodies for doing as best it can under the circumstances.  This letting go may need to happen again and again as our bodies and abilities continue to change.  – – More Mom…. “Ideally, the concepts of physical being, of time and relationships,  are liberated as we get older and older.”


It may help us as well to turn our attention toward others who are suffering, to use our own experience of pain to develop empathy and connection. – – So much of Mom’s life focused on putting her attention toward others.  In the mid-1950s, Mom had a nervous breakdown & was hospitalized for over a month, undergoing every sort of horrific “treatment” that was the norm back then; unlike other people of her day, who would have never talked about it, even with close friends, Mom was open about what brought her to that point, helped countless people by talking about her experiences, letting others know what brought her to breaking – her refusal to seek or let others help with two family medical emergencies that piled on, one after another.  ~ When her youngest son was killed, Mom got through it in part by putting her focus on his best friend, who was with him when it happened, and on his family.  From that tragedy on, if a friend lost a child, Mom was among the first to show up to comfort & just be present.  ~ In her last weeks, Mom’s hospital rooms were centers of good humor, interesting conversation & healing peace for the hospital personnel.  She gave as much comfort to the friends & family who came to see her at INOVA/Alexandria, then at St. Mary’s & finally at home as they gave to her. ~  Mom’s greatest desire was that each connection be reciprocal & she did all she could to make it so.


We live in a culture that lionizes activity, productivity, and independence.  … We have accepted the notion that our worth is determined by our level of activity or by what we generate.  – – And we are back to Mom…  “The changes  that come  with old age are scary, especially changes in life roles.  I have  not enjoyed the hands-on role of wife for over 26 years.  At ninety, I cannot  even manage the role I played as a parent.  The resources just are not there.    I cannot provide massive emotional or even minor financial support.   I  cannot wash a floor or do the grocery shopping or even dust my own room. (I   can still shell hard boiled eggs and clean mushrooms!)”


In contrast, Jewish tradition teaches that our worth is not conditioned by any external measure.  We humans are ultimately worthy simply because we are beings created in the divine image. – –  Mom… “Growing old, even some of the sadder aspects of it,  is part of the Lord’s grand scheme.  Let go of time-bound prejudices and fears  of growing older.”


As Ram Dass observes, limits and fatigue “may … be a message to attend to the moment – to be with it … to taste it … to embrace it, a way of making us take time, finally to see what’s here now.” – –  Mom… “Today. my body constantly clues me in that it is merely temporary.  It is  breaking down.  That is in the order of things, however rotten it is to  experience. … Lots of things I loved to do are just memories.  Instead of gearing up into  depression over what is no longer, I find it simpler to shift perspective.”


So, what can we hope for?  We can hope for healing … for the capacity to feel whole even when the body that carries us is broken. – – Who else? Mom, of course…  “Whoever is ME is changing so fast it is hard to keep up at times.  It feels  like more is bubbling up to the surface than ever before – well, since I fell  in love, married and became a mom for the first time.”


As our bodies experience the illness and decline that are normal elements of aging, we can strive to expand our field of vision – – remaining awake to the present moment but also seeing beyond the moment and beyond ourselves. – – Letting Mom have the last word…  “Dependency has not turned out to be as bad as I thought it would be.  There is a wonderful passage from the book Still Here that expresses my experience over the past year – “When there is true surrender and service between people, the roles of helper and helped, and the boundaries between those in power and those who are powerless, begin to dissolve.”  That has been my experience with my daughter and son-in-law and with, it seems, most of the other people in my life – the boundaries have begun to dissolve.”

It may seem lazy of me, letting Mom respond instead of me (how astonished she’d be), but it’s pretty amazing that someone who was THERE can share her experiences.  Thank you, Rabbi Friedman, for this special way to reconnect with the amazing Katharine Reynolds Lockhart (aka Mom).