A member of my congregation once argued that the key element in aging well was learning to be dependent. I felt terrified by such an idea—because it rang true for me. We spend the first half of our lives developing an increasing level of independence, from parents, from peers and others who might seek to control us, from social norms that we question and reject, from requiring financial support in order to sustain our lives. On all sides, our culture lifts up independence as the primary goal in all we do. Yet the reality of growing old means more and more parts of independent life become impossible for us, so that we have no choice but to admit limitations and depend on others, on services and family members and outside resources, on walkers and drivers and chair lifts and hearing aids and assisted living facilities to keep us afloat and moving. Given the attention on becoming and remaining independent, perhaps it is no surprise that the myriad options for dependence are criticized, minimized, seen as resources to refuse as long as possible. And refusing those helps are couched in terms of maintaining “dignity”: being able to stay home and live independently is being able to keep one’s dignity, while giving up independent living is judged as losing a bit of dignity.
All of which aligns with my experience each time I have been unable to avoid any longer a sign of aging that portends a loss of some degree of independence. Once I began wearing hearing aids, I also began trying whatever I could come up with to hide their presence on my head. Learning that I have macular degeneration and already noticing how it impacts nighttime driving has inspired me to find creative ways around admitting that I prefer daytime social engagements or evenings that end while there is still sufficient daylight for me to drive home easily. And when I am in situations where my age-related limitations can no longer be denied, I feel a wave of shame at admitting that my hearing is less, my vision is less, my independence is less.
How is it that being able to be self-sufficient and independent is judged as living “with dignity,” while anything other than self-sufficiency and independence is judged as having lost dignity? Other than independence and self-sufficiency being enshrined in our culture, I cannot understand why those ways of living also are the sole ways we judge to be living with our dignity intact, though I suspect our equally valued notion of being in control is tangled in those assumptions, that the apparent loss of dignity when one is more dependent is also a loss of control, and dignity and control seem to go hand in hand in our cultural views. Some cultures venerate aging and see it as the life stage where wisdom can be found. Elders in such cultures are treated with enormous respect and regarded as being the epitome of dignified individuals. Yet our culture turns this pattern upside down, grants to our early years the approval and quality of dignity, and shames us for the inevitability of aging, insists we must resist the decline of age with all the financial and personal and medical resources we can summon.
Such deeply entrenched cultural patterns will not be overturned anytime soon, even with alarms already sounded about the need to develop better options for the growing numbers of older—and less able to be independent—adults. So I content myself with at least not yielding to shame when I put my hearing aids on, when I adapt my social life so that more gatherings happen in the daylight hours, when I look at my lined face in the mirror each morning, when I ask a store clerk or a nearby stranger for help in lifting some item off a shelf. All those evidences of aging, while showing a person in decline and losing independence steadily, also are evidences of accumulated life experience, lessons learned the hard way, and a deeper awareness of what matters most, namely our capacity, our need, to be connected with one another and depend on one another in order to live fully all our days.