Thursday, February 26, 2015

Seeking a New Meaning of "Independent"

     If you are around my age (61) and having a living parent or parents, you are probably spending a lot of time dealing with the issues they are having  which is very different from simply visiting with them.
     My mother is 88 and lives on her own.  She manages with the help of a part time caregiver and very good health care provided by Medicare and Kaiser.  (I can be critical of both of these systems but overall they work well for her.)  She can’t hear very well and has gradually lost most of her sight to macular degeneration.  Certainly she cannot read or see anything in print that is less than a large thick headline.  She is unsteady on her feet, having broken her hip last summer and has some heart problems.  But she eats well, enjoys company, follows Downton Abbey closely and watches the PBS NewsHour. 
      I have one sibling and neither of us lives near my mother.  We visit almost every other month and sometimes spend considerable time with her.  One of us and often both of us talk to her every day and sometimes several times.  My sister also handles a lot of other arrangements for her.    
     What bugs me most about my mother’s situation is the way that people say, “She was so independent before.  It is so sad that she is so reliant on others.”  Or, “Your poor mother has lost her freedom and now has to ask people to help her.  How awful.” 
      I feel it is the essence of individualism and one of the many toxic consequences of capitalism, that independence and freedom is equated with not having to ask for things.  The notion that my mother or any person in the world is not reliant on others is a joke. We rely on others every minute of every day—I rely on people to obey traffic laws, to keep their dogs on leashes or under voice control, to hold the door for me when I am carrying too many things.  I panic when my internet goes down for 20 minutes and I can’t reach the IT person.  I believe that what I buy at the Farmer’s Market is organic because they say it is, and that the electrician who fixed the wiring under my house did so because he said he did.  I rely on my knowledge that I have good friends and that my partner loves me.  I rely on access to air and to clean water in order to even have a life in which I can rely on my cat to make me laugh.  My life is only possible because of a other people, nature and systems. 
My mother has always relied on others.  And others have relied on her.  For example, my mother knows everything about how city planning and zoning laws work in her community.  Her neighbors rely on that knowledge and to this day, some of the people who come to visit are coming for advice.
     The reason that individualism and capitalism want my mother to be seen as “losing her independence” is so that she can become a commodity—part of the “aging market.”  She can then be sold many things:  security systems, annuities, all kinds of living options for prices that can reach stratospheric levels, medicine, therapies, and more and more products designed for elderly people.  To be sure, many of these are helpful but even the helpful products (like a lightweight walker) is marketed to my mother as an individual so she can get places without asking for help.
      As I watch my mother age, I realize than an essential element of creating  a commons based society  has to be the willingness of each person to ask for what they need (or to meet needs without being asked.)   The act of asking is an expression of freedom and independence.  Our refusal to be turned into a commodity will be sorely tested in the next 20-30 years as Baby Boomers age.  We can use our aging process to really promote a commons based society—where everyone recognizes what they need and what they can offer: or as David Bollier puts it, “as communities with shared, long term, non market interests.”  Or we can become a commodity to be bought and sold in a very and profitable market. 
(This is an interesting article which touches on the latter:

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