The Burden of Dependence

by Rebecca Crichton

A decade ago, my social worker daughter and I discussed facilitating groups with parents and their adult children called “Let’s talk about Aging.” I had just started working in the aging field and I was aware of how most people I knew had never discussed some of the topics relating to aging with their adult children.

I invited a close friend, then 68, and her 28-year-old daughter to meet with us to discuss the concept. My friend said, “I don’t want to be a Burden,” using the word that captures what most of us don’t want to be as we age. Her daughter heard her and replied, “You already are a burden.” An uncomfortable silence ensued before she continued: “I love you and think about you as you age and plan to be there for you whatever your needs are.” Her words served as a reset for my own ideas about some of the dilemmas of aging.

When I present to groups about aging, I always ask “How many of you like to help others?” Most people raise their hands, smiling, nodding, clearly feeling pleased about how they are there for people in their lives.

“How many of you are good at asking for help?” Instant discomfort permeates the room. Hands lower. Gazes drop. A few stray hands remain up.

“Look around,” I urge. “What do you think about how good it feels to help and how we don’t/won’t/can’t ask for help from others?”

The discomfort many of us have about asking for or needing help has many reasons. There is the American mythos of Independence – needing help shows we are weak and vulnerable. And unworthy. Lazy. Not tough enough. Family dynamics might have trained us to feel shame when we ask for help. Or we might fear asking and being refused the support we need.

This is not the place to talk about the broader societal reasons that our culture is not caring, empathetic or committed to the welfare of its people. We know it and experience it daily.

Instead, I want to bring the question closer to home and suggest an honest assessment of the spectrum of Independence to Dependence in our lives. The goal is to recognize how to be Interdependent in ways that feel realistic and comfortable.

In the largest sense, we are always interdependent. The pandemic shone a spotlight on our dependence on essential workers. It demonstrated and proved how much we count on the help of others.

Wendy Lustbader, a Seattle social worker, author and speaker, wrote an important book, Counting on Kindness – The Dilemmas of Dependency. It explores the topic both from the standpoint of the person who is dependent and the people who are depended on. It acknowledges the existential issue of this most basic human need. We are born dependent, needing the essential caring and connection required to grow whole and increasingly independent.

Throughout our lives, we discover how to balance the giving and the receiving of support, care, love and interaction. There are times when we are independent operators, and there are time when we work collectively. 

Navigating how to live in a radically changed world is our job going forward. The realities of aging require clear-eyed recognition of our own radically changing needs and abilities.

Nobody solves this alone or finally. We need to be honest with ourselves and others about what we need and what we can offer. Conversations with family and friends, healthcare and financial providers are all part of how we become active in the decisions that affect us.

We have not ‘failed’ Positive Aging if we need the help of assistive devices or the care of others. We ‘win’ when we allow ourselves to be honest, vulnerable and open to the awareness of interdependence that comes at each stage of our lives.