How to look at the pros and cons of independent living as we age
Q. One of my concerns about getting older is losing my independence, particularly since I am a very independent older woman. The thought of having to rely on someone else for my well-being is not only uncomfortable but scary. How does one come to grips with this? A.R.
Most older adults have spent their entire lives living independently. They worked, earned money, supported themselves, raised families and made their own decisions for decades. Yet aging can bring about changes that lead to becoming more dependent. These include financial difficulties, inability to care for oneself both physically and mentally or having to relocate because of limitations.
The topic is on many people’s minds as indicated by surveys as well as conversations with friends. One survey ranked fear of becoming dependent in later life as the No. 1 concern followed by safe issues and memory loss. Another survey ranked it No. 4 after loneliness, declining health and having to relocate.
A word about our culture: Independence and self-determination are American values. Most people want to have a role in shaping their own destiny, relying on themselves and making their own choices. A loss of independence is a jolt to this shared value.
Yet none of us is completely independent in the purest sense. We depend on friends, family, electricity, fuel or charging stations for our autos, on our doctors, accountants, refuse collectors, airlines pilots and plumbers. The reality is that we all are interdependent. The rub comes when we have some limitations and can no longer care for our own personal needs, whether they are physical or mental.
Here are two suggested approaches to manage this uncertainty.
A practical approach: Think about playing the what-if game. For example, “What if I can no longer navigate the stairs?” “What are my options?” That decision might be installing an elevator or moving to a one-story apartment, condominium or senior living residence. Ask yourself, “What if I can no longer care for my physical needs or just want a little support?” Options might include a part-time companion, home care, moving to assisted living, or in some cases living with adult children.
Most of these decisions have financial implications. It might be useful to create a spreadsheet of the options, cost, affordability and preferences. Then there is the question, “What if I suffer from dementia?” If one lives long enough with the disease, assistance with tasks of daily living typically require support. Then the question is, “Who and what will be there for me and what can I do to plan for this possibility?”
These questions, options and plans can be part of a family discussion and also written among your will, trust or messages for your loved ones. Having the options and preferences in written form can be clarifying and useful in planning.
Thoughts, emotions and concerns. I recently facilitated several discussion groups of women who are part of renewment, a forum and community of mid-to-late-life career women who are moving from work and careers they loved to their next chapter in life (renewment.org). Here are some of their views related to dependency which may sound familiar. (Renewment, a trademarked term, is a combination of retirement and renewal.)
“I am physically and emotionally dependent on my husband; I cannot drive. With no kids, the future is scary.”
“We all depend on one another for survival.”
“Covid was a clear time of interdependence.”
“Independent as I am, I know that can change on a dime.”
“The subject is so eye-opening. I am single with no children. What will happen to me?”
“I wish I had a wife.”
It’s not good to be too independent. A balance is important.”
“We need to let others help us. It’s good for us and the helper who wants the opportunity to be part of our lives.”
“I am thinking about my upcoming hip surgery, what it means and what I will need; I am trying to plan ahead.”
“My husband and I have an interdependent relationship. We each have different skills sets and contribute different things. He shops and cooks; I pick up the poop.”
“Things change when our abilities change.”
“When it comes to worry, don’t live in the wreckage of the future.”
Thank you, A.R. for your important question. Hopefully thinking about needs, options, affordability and support will clarify some next steps that will help alleviate some of those fears and provide a secure future.
Stay well and as you know, acts of kindness can change the world.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity