Friday, 11 March 2011

If we're used to being independent can we do interdependence?

Being independent has a very high value in most western civilisations. Many people hope to remain in their own home in later life - but can promoting independence among adults aged 75+ also create pressures for individuals? Elena Portacolone has some interesting ideas on how older people may find themselves regulated by policies that effectively make independence a moral imperative. For instance requirements in some supportive housing may mean that those residents considered more at risk are debarred. In an article to be published in Ageing & Society Portacolone suggests that more attention to interdependence could be fruitful.

The idea of interdependence certainly has some resonance for me following some interviews I've held with women in a transitional phase of entering retirement. My focus in on the experience of ageing for people without children, and many of the participants in my study are also without current partners. Women who had moved to a new area talked about how they went about making new contacts through pursuing interests such as singing or country walks. One remarked on how during her recent period of illness neighbours had helped out and how she tended to do the same for them 'I realise however independent I am ... we all depend on one another and any of us could be in need of some help at any time'.

I’m wondering what the boundaries are between independence and interdependence. Are they opposites or can one thing shade into the other? Women on their own are often thought of as quite independent. In research on older people, never-married women have been found to have the highest levels of organisational membership (Arber 2004). While being prepared to join could show independence there’s also a strong sign of interdependence there surely? The same category of women also have the highest proportions in residential care (Wenger et al.2000). And while that suggests some dependence – the decision to seek care and support can also signal independence – like Diana Athill opting in a rational way for a life ‘free of worries’.

Perhaps it would be good to independently arrive at a degree of interdependence?


  1. I agree, though I have never really approached the subject in this manner. Thanks Elana for your wise and open-ended writing.

  2. Very interesting--this question has been becoming more pressing for me over the years as my parents are beginning to show their age. I come from a family that treasures its independence--to such an absurd degree, in fact, that my grandfather killed himself at a rather young age rather than ask my grandmother to nurse him through his diabetes complications. My grandmother almost immediately sought a retirement community after that and was very active in a number of organizations, just as cited above. But for people who are not so open to interdependence, I wonder how we can help them to maintain the balance between their independence and their happiness. For example my father is so devoted to his job that he has no social life, and when he retires I wonder how the rest of us might help to ease his transition and help him to find fulfillment in the people and activities around him... These are such important questions in this time when there are an overwhelming number of americans poised to retire--and surely the advances we make in these times will have lasting repercussions well into our own futures.

  3. Elena Portacolone is doing some great insightful work on ageing and society that could benefit many many people. We were in the same MBA class and her business background and this work make a great combination. One of the trends we studied at school was the implications of an ageing society on business, but of course the work Elena is doing here is much more important as it touches people on an individual level. Her work is insightful not just for policy-makers and nursing practitioners, but also on the broader society on how to integrate ageing people better.

  4. I agree. I think independence is over rated in this country and that there are so many benefits of being "interdependent", especially for seniors of any marital status. We tend to isolate in our little bubbles, when what we really need is a community of loving friends who can be there for us when we need them. It's a win-win for everyone.

  5. What I find most interesting about Elena Portacolone's research is her perspective on "precariousness" among the aged. Independence can be a smaller portion of this larger issue. -Shelley Lapkoff, Ph.D.

  6. Greetings,
    My name is Sarah Jarmon and I am the program director of the Senior Survival School at Planning for Elders in San Francisco. We are an advocacy organization that works to keep folks living independently in their homes as long as possible, by addressing the funding for services and empowering seniors and people with disabilities to understand how to access the programs they need and deserve.

    Thanks to a grant from UCSF, Elena Portacolone and us have been working together since last year. In our monthly newsletter we have been running a "Senior Survival Story" column. The stories are all interviews that Elena has done with people who are living alone in San Francisco. They document the experiences of seniors as they navigate the maze of services, deal with health issues, remain active in their community, and live independently.

    The goal of the column is to highlight individual stories of challenges and successes in accessing resources and community support, and their own independence. Our hope is that these stories will serve as evidence for the continuing need for a social safety net and investment in programs that keep our community healthy and safe.

    Elena Portacolone's work has already borne fruit, as one of the people profiled, James Pye, was offered housing by a city agency after his struggle to find affordable housing was detailed.

    This is very important work, from our perspective as advocates. It is an important forum by which a larger audience can better understand what it means to be a senior in San Francisco, funding programs can be prioritized, and individuals get their voices heard. We appreciate the work with Elena, and feel our organization is stronger for it.