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The Fiction of Independence
All the passages below are taken from the book “Counting on Kindness: The Dilemmas of Dependency” by Wendy Lustbader. It was published in 1991.
There are moments in life when our true dependence on one another breaks through. One woman explains:
I’m only thirty-five, but getting really sick last winter made me think about what would happen at the end of my life. I started wondering who would take care of me if I couldn’t take care of myself. I told a few of my friends that I wanted to move in with them if anything happens to me. The idea of living near my friends is now more important to me than getting the greatest job or going back to school to get the fanciest degree. My illness really changed how I see friendship altogether.
As soon as health problems threaten our autonomy, loyalty becomes the attribute we most value in our relatives and celebrate in our friends. The partner of a man dying of AIDS quotes a remark made to him by a friend: “All that will matter to you when you’re old is how much you are loved.” 1
People who have never been seriously ill tend to doubt such assertions, while almost everyone who has been ill or disabled swears to this wisdom. In “Dying in a Technological Society,” Eric Cassell points out that we may try to ignore our connectedness to one another so long as we possess good health, but that in sickness “the fiction of independence and the denial of fate give way to reality.” 2
This chapter examines community, friendship, and generosity, three aspects of life that we may squander until we fully admit to our dependence on one another. No matter what our previous attitudes, illness leaves little doubt that our need for attachment to others persists throughout the lifespan and that it matters more than anything else at the end.
STAYING IN PLACE
If we conducted the middle of our lives with an eye to the end of our lives, we would choose a place to live and we would stay. Residing near others with whom we establish a history of reciprocity is the best hope for old age or disability, whether we manage to live near blood relations or choose to develop family-like bonds with others. A sixty-six-year-old woman explains:
I’ve lived in this apartment more than twenty years already. So even when I had to start using this wheel-chair, I decided to stay put. There’s no point going any-place else, even if they have ramps and special bath-tubs. I’ve known my neighbors for years now. Any time I need a quart of milk or a head of lettuce, it seems someone’s asking me if I need anything at the store. I did a lot for them, and they haven’t forgotten. If I moved someplace new, I couldn’t do anything for anyone. I’d just be a burden. No one would remember me any other way. I’d rather stay where people know who I am.
Loyalty is a reward for remembered generosity. Moving to an accessible building would have improved this woman’s immediate independence, but at the sacrifice of her long-term security. No amount of self-reliance can match the confidence derived from years of faithfulness and accumulated gratitude.
To be compelled to leave one’s home was once considered a terrible fate. Yet in the modern age, we commonly forfeit bonds of loyalty in order to improve our circumstances materially. We voluntarily turn ourselves into displaced people. We recognize our displacement as exile only when the time comes that we need to call on others for help.
Many people living in rural areas still recognize the value of interdependence as a way of life. In 1989, I visited a small town in West Virginia and stayed with a family who had resided there for several generations. After dinner the first night, my sixty-two-year-old host excused herself from the table with this explanation:
I have to go make some phone calls. There’s a few women I call every night between 8: 30 and 9: 00. They live alone, and they’re in their eighties and nineties. I like to make sure they’re OK. Having someone to talk to at the end of the day does them a world of good, even just for a few minutes. They know someone is thinking of them, and they can say a thing or two about how their day was. I know they really look forward to it. The whole business takes me less than a half hour at the most.
This woman could not have separated herself from the fate of people she had known since her youth. As far back as she could remember, they had been part of the landscape of her life. She had known them long before health problems forced them to withdraw from active roles in the community. Watching over their welfare was more a reflex than an effort.
Our concept of community was once bounded by living in a particular place. In Community and Social Change in America, Thomas Bender shows how improved transportation and communication have since made “social networks completely independent of territory.” He writes, “In contemporary America, men and women do not so much move from one town to another as follow an advantageous career path that may take them to a number of basically incidental locations.” 3
The problem with our modern networks is that they become useless once physical frailty catapults our mobility back into the nineteenth century. When we can no longer drive or mount the steps of a bus or negotiate busy airports, we have to resort to face-to-face, immediate communities. Where we reside once again determines the nature of the life that we live. An eighty-two-year-old woman explains how drastically one’s territory can shrink with the onset of physical difficulties:
I haven’t seen my best friend in five years, and she lives right here in town. Can you imagine that? I can’t see well enough to go out alone, and she can’t get down her front steps unless someone practically carries her. She can’t impose on her family to give her a ride over, because they already do so much for her. There’s only three miles between us, but it may as well be three thousand miles. We talk every morning on the phone, but there’s nothing like sitting down with someone and having a cup of coffee. So I’ve forced myself to get to know some of the women right here in the building.
In a study of elderly urban widows, the sociologist Helena Lopata compared those who had not moved since their bereavement with those who had immediately relocated. She found that those who had stayed in place were “more fully involved in neighboring than any of the movers.” She quotes a woman in her seventies who had moved to live with her son but who then returned to her old neighborhood after three months: “From my experience, I think the problem is that you miss your own age group. I am much happier to be with my own friends.” Another woman in the study speculates as to why her area contains so many widows: “I think, for one thing, they’ve lived here for so long that they just stay here because all their friends are here and it’s too difficult to start over at an older age.” 4
Prior to reaching our time of frailty, we are wise to survey our lives for pockets of loyalty worth preserving. Starting over is strenuous at any age, but especially when we are emotionally vulnerable or physically fragile. A seventy-year-old woman who moved to be near her son when her health started to fail explains:
I always thought that living near your children was the most important thing— after a certain age. So I said yes right away when my son offered to turn his basement into an apartment for me. At first, I was glad I moved, but I found out that your family can’t fill your life. You see them at dinner time but you’ve got the whole day to fill until then. Plus, you don’t really know each other any more. They try to make you feel comfortable, but you feel like an outsider— you have different tastes, different things you like to do, a different way of life. Back home, I always had people around when I wanted them. You know a lot of people when you live somewhere as long as I lived there. I want to move back, but don’t know how to tell this to my son. He’s been so good to me, and I don’t want to hurt him.
Reciprocation keeps relationships alive. Bonds with friends and neighbors may mean more than blood ties, especially if a recent history of giving and receiving animates these other relationships. Such discoveries contradict what we prefer to believe about the strength of family bonds and our ability to overcome the effects of geographical separation.
Scattering across the country causes family members to become strangers to each other, no matter how often they write or call. Verbal contact is not the same as meshing the routines of daily life: going shopping together, exchanging help back and forth, and witnessing each other’s victories and sorrows first-hand.
When she was seventy-five, the anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested in an interview that “we in America have very little sense of interdependence.” She asserted, “The real issue is whether a society keeps its older people close to children and young people. If old people are separated from family life, there is real tragedy both for them and the young.” 5 A sixty-year-old woman told me about the day she was summoned out of the periphery of her daughter’s life:
She called and said, “Mom, I need your help.” I couldn’t believe my ears, because she’d always been the independent type. Her husband had left her, and she needed me to come out there right away to give her a hand with the children. I’d been a widow for Five years already, so I was used to being on my own. Who wants to take care of young children at my age? It was a big change for me, giving up my freedom, but I went. It’s been good for me and good for them. I’m close to the kids now, not just a voice on the phone. And I don’t worry so much about the future any more. If I get sick, here I am. I have a life here. Our ties remain strongest when they are sustained by both proximity and mutual need. In A Crown of Glory: A Biblical View of Aging, Rachel Dulin cites sections of the Book of Ruth depicting a model of aging in which “older members of the family were a resource, not a liability.” She suggests that through older relatives’ essential contributions to child-rearing “a balance of function, usefulness, and purpose was attained both in the family unit and in the community.” 6
Ironically, divorce has become so widespread in modern societies that assistance from grandparents has become necessary again. In their study of grandparents’ relations with their families, the researchers Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg found that the high divorce rate is associated with close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. They observe that “strong, functional inter-generational ties are linked to family crises, low incomes, and instability.” 7
In modern industrial societies, we tend to acknowledge the truth of our dependence on one another only when illness or another stressful event makes this reality fully evident to us. Nancy Foner, an anthropologist, notes in contrast that people in nonindustrial societies regularly rely on each other “in times of emergency, disaster, or danger,” and that they “must depend on, and cultivate and maintain a large array of social relationships as a resource throughout their lives.” 8 She points out that there is little discontinuity between the beginning, middle, and end of life when only the nature of one’s dependency changes, but not the certainty of it.
FRIENDSHIP AND EXHAUSTION
Much conspires against friendship in later life. Retirement removes the context from which work friendships may have drawn their momentum. Physical problems may interfere with the nature of our activities and the frequency of our contacts with others. Above all, the deaths of old friends may rob us of the will for friendship. A sixty-eight-year-old woman states flatly, “My close friends are either dead or live at a great distance and I have no interest in making new ones.” 9
We become weary when old friends die. After the deaths of several friends and relatives in succession, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to a friend, “The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.” 10 She died a few months later at the age of fifty-six. The very notion of replacing an old friend feels false, since it is impossible to match in a short span something that became what it was because of the passage of decades. When new friends beckon, we are reluctant to put in the heart and the energy, only to have death again deny our harvest.
Many people limit themselves to superficial friendships at the end of their lives. They insist that nothing further is possible, staying within safe conversational topics, such as the doings of family members and the trivialities of medical problems. They then point to these dull friendships as proof of their initial belief. An eighty-one-year-old woman claims, “When you’re older you don’t go deep into friendship.” She continues:
What do you hear from any of us? My family, my children, my grandchildren— that’s all you hear. You have no place to grow together. When you’re younger you do. You’re educating your children, having a social life with your husband…. When you’re older, you’ve heard it all before … and anyway, what more is there to say? 11
Some of the worst rejections received in later life come from other older people. A man who was unhappy with his move to a retirement home wrote, “Most people here are either senile, hard of hearing, unable to speak above a whisper, [or] ‘slow on the trigger.’” 12 All of us see aging more readily in strangers than in ourselves. Into our own faces and the faces of people we have known for years we infuse the memories of youth and early adulthood. For strangers, there can be no interposing of a past that was never witnessed. Especially when age has wreaked disfigurement, we see the disability before we see the person.
A seventy-year-old resident of a retirement home attests to the hurt caused by such attitudes:
I used to go down to the lobby for coffee hour, but it was too hard for me to hear what people were saying. If more than one talks at once, forget it— I can’t hear a thing. They all laugh, and I don’t know what’s so funny. You feel like an idiot, nodding and smiling when you don’t know what the heck is going on. I can’t keep asking people to repeat things for me. As it is, I can tell I’m a burden to have around. I can picture them saying under their breaths when they see me, “Oh, no, look who’s coming.” So I don’t go any more. It’s not worth it.
We tend to shun in others what we fear in ourselves. Yet mustering our willingness to look beneath the surface of other people’s infirmities is the only way to counter this fear with hope. If instead we keep averting our eyes and refusing to make accommodations, our intolerance will fill us with dread as our own surface deteriorates. We may leave ourselves stranded.
The first rule of change is dissatisfaction. The word sad is derived from the Old English saed for sated and the Latin satis for enough. Satiation, or running out of wants, is a living death. When we are satisfied that we know all that is worth knowing about ourselves, or when we accept that there is nothing more to say or to learn from others, we close off our curiosity. We tell ourselves, “I’ve had enough,” and we stay sad and exhausted.
I once knew a group of women in a nursing home who reached a point of utter fatigue from talking about their children, grandchildren, pills, and bowel problems. One day, they vowed that when they came together for meals, they would each bring something to the conversation outside of the familial and bodily domain. One of the women described what happened:
The first dinner was terrible. We had nothing to say. But we were all stubborn enough to keep our promise. We ate in complete silence. The next morning, a few of us brought newspaper clippings with us to breakfast, and one woman brought along a poem she’d written. It was like lighting a fire. We just needed to get started, and then it went. Each day got easier. Pretty soon, the whole dining room envied us. Everyone stared over at our table and wondered what was going on that was so interesting. So much came out of us, but we had to push ourselves to do it.
Taking an interest is half of inspiration. A woman whose vision and hearing had both markedly diminished decided to force herself to go to a senior center, reasoning “If I don’t go soon, I wouldn’t recognize a new friend if I could find one.” 13 After moving to a retirement home an eighty-year-old woman wrote: “An unexpected pleasure was finding so many friends of like age and interests. There was no need to be bored if one were interested in living.” 14
Three years before she died, the writer Lou Andreas-Salome befriended a younger man who stood by her loyally until her death. She wrote, “I find it nice of life that it always, even so late as this, sends something so exquisite for companionship along the way.” Her biographer adds:
The importance she had for this younger friend seems to have been due to that same power so many had noted in her before and which she evidently kept to the very end of her life— her power as an “understander” and listener. [He] visited her day after day and was quietly encouraged by her to talk about feelings, impressions, experiences. Often during these conversations he would think she had fallen asleep and he would stop talking, but then would hear her wholly attentive voice in the half-dark asking him to go on. 15
As life gets physically more difficult, we need commitments to others to bind us to life. Those who stay insular find that their spirit for life dwindles along with their physical powers. In The Gift, Lewis Hyde maintains that gifts have to move from one person to another, or they lose their value: “Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion…. The gift that is not used will be lost, while the one that is passed along remains abundant.” 16 The gift of continuing to be alive, when passed on to others through friendship, makes the spirit abundant even as the body wanes. Many people surprise themselves with the quality of the friendships they are able to form, once they put aside their biases. A sixty-year-old man living in specialized housing for older and disabled people told me about the changes that were set in motion once he became receptive to making friendships there:
I never thought I’d end up in a place like this. I’ve always been a loner. I never needed anybody’s help and that’s the way I wanted to keep it. But my stroke wiped me out. My savings were blown on all those doctor bills, and I couldn’t get anyone to give me a job. So I moved in here. Boy, was I a snob. For the first couple of years, I didn’t associate with any of these people. See, I was too young to be an old man, and I wasn’t the kind to be on the dole. I had to prove I wasn’t one of them. But it gradually dawned on me that we were all in the same boat. Everyone’s here for a reason. Once I dropped my attitude, people came out of the wood-work to be friendly to me. I have more friends now than in my whole life put together.
Having witnessed similar transformations, Arlie Hochschild in The Unexpected Community portrays her observations of the relationships between residents in a senior apartment complex. She describes a sibling-like equality and reciprocity, claiming that during “some periods of life, such as adolescence and old age… an individual is open to, and needs, these back up relationships.” 17
A GENIUS FOR LIFE
A son wrote this account of his mother’s triumphant use of dissatisfaction:
My mother was fifty-five years old when she retired. She decided to take up swimming for exercise and something to do, but she couldn’t understand why the women who went swimming never interacted with each other in the dressing room or the pool. She made a decision: to go there and start talking. She found that many of the women were lonely, depressed, and isolated because of widowhood, fatigue from caregiving to sick husbands, or from their own aches and pains. Many of the women had led interesting lives: there was a singer with an operatic voice, a survivor of the Holocaust, an actress, and several former teachers. What began as a decision by one person became a small group of friends who swam together regularly and eventually became a group of eighty. They called themselves “The Aquabelles,” and held a yearly dinner at a local restaurant in which many of the women performed. One subgroup did shows for nursing homes and another gave swimming lessons to children. Before my mother died, I asked her how she wanted to be remembered. She said she would like a simple plaque with a mermaid on it and the inscription, “Irma Delehanty, Aquabelle.”
The words genius and generous come from the Latin root genere, meaning “to beget.” 18 To have a genius for life is to possess the ability to generate warmth and well-being in others. This woman’s generosity spawned similar impulses in her fellow swimmers, inspiring them to take an interest in each other and in projects greater than their individual concerns. Largess literally enlarges our lives. Recovering or first discovering one’s genius for life requires a convergence of opportunity and willingness.
During the year following his mother’s death, a son worried constantly about his eighty-six-year-old father. As often as he could, he made the two-hundred mile trip to the rural area where his father lived. He tells what he observed:
Within a month, he had hired a woman to clean his house and do the shopping. She’s a single mother of two young children, so he had her bringing them along with her to the house to save on day care. My father is a practical man. He would watch the kids while she did the housework, and he got attached to them. A few months later, he was telling me how they lived in a cabin with no electricity, and how the kids got scared before the lamps were lit. The next thing I heard, he was having electricity installed for them. He said, “What else do I have to do with my money?” That’s all he talks about now when I call— how his little family is doing. And when he was sick for a week and I couldn’t get up there, this woman and her kids came every day to look after him. I don’t think he could have gotten through his grief without them to fuss and fume about, and I think they would do anything for him.
The immediate genius of generosity is that it draws us out of ourselves. Leaving the confines of his loss, this man was carried away by his interest in the welfare of “his little family.” Ecstasy, to be beside oneself with joy, is to have left the blunting boundaries of self-interest.
Generosity pulls us out of despondency, whether we arrive at this bonus accidentally or seek it intentionally. In circumstances when there is little we can do to improve our own lives, having a beneficial effect on someone else’s life is especially encouraging to the spirit. In Helplessness, Martin Seligman writes, “I suggest that joy accompanies and motivates effective responding; … that what produces self-esteem and a sense of competence, and protects against depression, is not only the absolute quality of experience, but the perception that one’s own actions controlled the experience.” 19
A sixty-one-year-old woman enduring dialysis three times a week explains:
On the other days, I’m a volunteer companion to housebound people. I keep them company, get them groceries, whatever. Look, I have the strength, and they can’t get out. And it’s a lifesaver for me. We laugh, we talk, we have lunch, sometimes we just watch TV. Otherwise, I’d have nothing to think about but my next dialysis.
During her long hours on the kidney machine, this woman thinks about the people who count on her. She imagines special treats she will pick up for them at the store or comes up with ideas that will help them to flourish. Her capacity to endure arises directly from her stake in other people’s survival. Knowing that her actions make a difference protects her from depression and assures her that her life continues to serve a purpose.
Accepting help from others and allowing them to feel that their contributions are significant is its own generosity. In doing so, we affirm the ongoing value of good will and the fact that thoughtfulness is never wasted. A woman who coped with polio for most of her life explains:
When my neighbors ring my bell on a snowy day to inquire if I need something from the store, even though I am prepared for bad weather I try to think up some item rather than reject a generous offer. It is kinder to accept help than refuse it in an effort to prove independence. 20
It is in the nature of kindness that both the helper and the helped exchange encouragement. In The First Year Alone, Beverly Gordon describes how she was unable to extricate herself from depression after her husband died. Mercifully, a friend urged her to hire as her housekeeper a young woman who needed to be taught basic living skills, such as cooking, budgeting, and shopping. After a few months, the young woman’s daily need for her brought her predicament to the fore: she had to choose between dwelling on her loss and opening herself to the risks and rewards of a fresh attachment. She concluded, “No matter how deep my sorrow may be, it does not give me license to waste the rest of my life.” 21
Engaging life requires an active decision; letting ourselves languish requires little effort. After uprooting herself in order to move into low-cost housing, an eighty-year-old woman describes the lassitude that resulted:
I wake up in the morning and start to get up. Then I ask myself: What for? Because I have nothing to do any more— no dog, no garden, nobody to take care of. And I don’t eat. I cook something for the evening and when it is ready, I say ach! I don’t want to eat it, and I put it in the refrigerator. 22
The writer Robertson Davies claims that lethargy is one of the greatest dangers we face as we age. Having become disenchanted with many aspects of life, we may pull back into a state of protective indifference in which we decrease our exposure to pain, but also bypass chances to be invigorated. He writes, “There is only one kind of failure that really breaks the spirit…. It is the failure which manifests itself in a loss of interest in really important things…. Once it has us in its grip, it is hard for us to recognize what ails us.” 23
I once asked a wheelchair-bound resident of a nursing home the secret-of her consistent good spirits. She answered:
Friends. I’ve made a few good ones here. My brain, my mouth, and my heart still work, so I use them. Take the aide who dresses me in the morning— she’s having a hard time of it in her life. I always get to hear the latest about her sons and her ex-husband. Sometimes I put my two cents in. Mostly, I just listen so she can get it off her chest. I’ve got all the time in the world, so she pours her heart out. She does extra things for me, like get me nightgowns with ties in the back instead of snaps. She likes to see that I’m comfortable, and I like to nudge her into making a better life for herself.
In drawing out the aide’s story, this woman turned a degrading chore into a daily interlude of camaraderie. She made something out of the nothingness of life in a nursing home.
No matter how severely our other powers decline, the capacity to attract and sustain friendship is a constructive force that need not leave us. In The Art Spirit, Robert Henri claims that genius “exists in some degree in everyone” and that “any material will do.” 24 The genius in generosity does not depend on perishable resources like wealth, beauty, or physical mobility. We can extend ourselves to whoever is at hand.
Prior to getting sick, many people insist that becoming more and more independent is a sign of progress in life. They regard the need to lean on others as a weakness or as an indication of decline. In The Evolving Self, Robert Kegan counters such views by suggesting that we all experience a lifelong yearning for “integration, attachment, inclusion.” 25 He maintains that this need develops in tandem with our urge for autonomy, no matter how ardently we try to suppress or ignore it.
An eighty-one-year-old woman who endured three heart attacks in six years explains how she sustains herself:
I never sit still if I know somebody who needs me. I have a lady on the seventh floor. I do different things for her, like washing her hair and making lunch for her. She loves peanut butter. Every night I walk her up and down the corridor so she gets her exercise. If she don’t exercise, she’ll get sick and be sent to a nursing home. I also do her laundry when she’s not feeling up to it, which is most of the time. This lady is only seventy-two years old. She could be my little sister. But she has no family, no one to look in on her. The people in this building, we’re her family. 26 [131-148]
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