Recently a community senior told me, “I am sick of everyone telling me what I can and cannot do. I just want to do what I want to do it, when I want to do it.”
She was referring to the decrease in her personal freedom imposed by her aging process as well as the guidelines and restrictions from the COVID pandemic. As we approach the celebration of our country’s independence, it’s interesting to consider how American’s view independence, from a cultural and personal perspective.
For Americans, freedom is one of the cultural values held most dear. The country was fought for, and founded on, the desire for freedom. Patrick Henry’s famous quote “Give me liberty or give me death!” is one of the most remembered sayings that came out of the American Revolution. The culture that developed through that history is central to American society today.
As individuals, personal independence is also highly valued. Those who take care of themselves are praised. Individuals who are in their 90s and still active and living in their own homes are honored. There’s many who say they would rather stay in their own homes than move to a senior living community. For many, needing assistance, needing others, needing any help is a sign dependence, and therefore a weakness.
There’s a double-edged sword with this manner of thinking. While freedom and independence are wonderful things to have, the reality is that many people encounter changes as they age that can make being independent a hefty challenge, and living in their own homes may have a negative impact on their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
What are the alternatives? How can one effectively deal with the situations and losses that result in decreased independence?
First, like the founding fathers did, you can fight for your independence. Find out if there is something you can do to slow, stop, or even reverse the changes that are making it difficult to remain independent. For example, if muscle weakness is making it difficult to get in and out of the bath, or if falling is an issue, then join a balance class or do leg strengthening exercises. If you are finding your mind is slowing down and you have trouble remembering things, meditation can help. So can learning something new, especially something that makes your brain work fast, such as ping pong or juggling. If the changes are more related to feelings of loneliness, find a social group to join, or find a way to do things to help others. All of the suggestions here are proven methods to improve physical, intellectual, and social wellness.
The second way to deal with restrictions to independence is to focus on what you can do and celebrate those areas of life. Recognize that while the losses are real, and sometimes inevitable, there are ways to maintain aspects of independence and take control of those areas. For instance, if changes make driving to the store no longer an option, you may need to get a ride from a friend, or a ride share service, but you can still go. Or if it’s that you can’t do your own shopping, you can still decide what you want. If someone shops for you, you can be very specific and still get what you want. While these options are obviously not ideal, exercising control and focusing on the power you do have can be a positive impact on your overall health.
As the celebration of America’s independence takes place, take a moment to reflect on all the personal freedoms you do have. While an illness or injury may have decreased your ability to do what you want to do or how you want to do it, focusing on the things you can change and fighting for them, and then re-focusing on celebrating the areas you do have independence can help maintain a long, happy life.