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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-03-25

By Abby Lippman

Jane Brody wrote recently in her New York Times blog about "staying independent in old age," but she didn't address this issue sufficiently—and certainly she ignored issues of social justice that play a large role. Let me try to widen the discussion here and (re)consider "independence" in old, or at any, age. For much of this, I am inspired by the brilliant research and writing by Silvia Federici on reproductive work. (For an introduction to Federici’s work, an excellent start is the collection of her essays from 1975-2010 in Revolution at Point Zero).

First, though, I want to assert that living fully "independently" is actually likely to be something no one old or young ever really does. Young moms with babies can always appreciate another pair of arms (to help with childcare) or pair of legs (to pick up essential groceries when the weather makes going out with an infant especially treacherous). Women getting older and those with disabilities can always benefit from some help in and outside the house, just as can those with more temporary problems that make getting around difficult or impossible. Women living in conditions of poverty can't always afford to put nourishing meals on the table for themselves or their families and can find collective gardens and collective kitchens ways to improve their nutrition, share recipes, and get other support. And who hasn't blessed the adolescent kid who without asking (for either permission or payment) quietly shovelled the snow or cut the grass just when her own energies were spent?

Other examples abound, but I think the point is made. And even the Independent Living (IL) Associations across the country that work to change how we think of people with disabilities actually recognize the value of this mutual support and the need for systemic policies and practices that will make IL possible.

So clearly, we can't understand "independent living" as just going it alone; it's just not done. And to see it as such is to feed into current values about individualism, damaging negative cultural assumptions about those who need assistance, and unjust neo-liberal social policies that reduce various forms of social assistance in the guise of ending "dependence" of the poor and harm women's health and well-being.

To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that these services we do for each other should be merely more unvalued unpaid work for women. We've all done enough of that. Nor do I want to simply resurrect the now-commonplace notion that "it takes a village to raise a child." Of course it does, but this seems too quickly to gloss over some fundamental issues about vulnerability, community, solidarity, and caring for each other that will require structural changes in society. I'll come back to these later.

No doubt thinking about dependence/independence and what they mean may have been especially relevant to me lately given my way-too-slow recovery from injuries I got from slipping on wet leaves and then falling hard on a rough roadway. My usual car-less habits of walking everywhere and of carrying groceries home from the market in my backpack, and of even doing simple chores out of the house, were all eliminated as I attempted to allow time for some seriously damaged leg muscles to heal. And the help of others became very important to me. My DIY attitude to life, a very privilege-based one I know, was called into question and I needed to do some serious reflection about giving and accepting—and the role of living arrangements (among other factors) in all this.

Now, I always liked the idea of living in shared ways and recognized how relationships (with family members, with friends, with colleagues and neighbours) were important to my well-being. But in these neo-liberal times, these connections seem to be marginalized, even trivialized, while we are pushed increasingly to rely on ourselves, to view all (purchases, decisions, behaviors, etc.) as simply matters of individual choice, and to go it solo. We really need to push back, and to push hard. In this regard, it's probably more important than ever to consider how conditional our supposed independence is and how much more we need to rethink how we live. And to consider policies and practices outside the market economy that will let the relationships critical to our well-being flourish for the benefit of all involved.

One place to begin exploring a "solidarity centred mode of life” as described by Federici is with our housing arrangements and how these can become "communities of care" that encourage and support (radical) INTERdependence as a way many women—especially older women—may want to live their lives.

No, I'm not talking about those collectives many of my generation lived in years ago—though some who experienced these (and others who only fantasized about them) may yearn nostalgically for those times. Rather, I want to advocate for the kind of radical  INTERdependence that co-housing may offer, arrangements where each individual/couple/family of multiple ages and with diverse backgrounds live, with each having private separate space, but also sharing in communal resources such as spaces for socializing, dining, laundry, or whatever whenever they want. Co-housing accommodates the need for privacy with principles of solidarity and cooperation—both benefiting as we shop as needed for each other. Residents offer childcare as a way of intergenerational bonding; sit and have a coffee or glass of wine with others; prepare collaborative meals—all the while being able to close doors and be on our own whenever they choose. 

Setting up these arrangements will require government support for creative housing arrangements as well as commitments from all who take part to the mutually supported goals for the co-housing project that are agreed on before even the first location is sought. Similarly, the participants need to agree to shared decision making on all that may affect the community living together (e.g., about joint purchases, repairs, etc). Consensus is valued and supported; solidarity is essential.

This isn't at all easy to do. And the dearth of such arrangements in Canada demonstrates this. For example, there actually is a co-housing network in Canada, but it seems to be a rather new venture, since not many places have ongoing or even developing projects. There is only one listing for all of Quebec, with several scattered throughout British Columbia. There also seemed to be one project being explored in Montreal—though my unsuccessful attempts to reach them suggest they are moribund. As well, Montrealer Janet Torge is hoping to see the establishment here of what she calls "Radical Resthomes." A good idea but perhaps one in need of a better title than "resthomes," since this is unlikely to capture the actual activities of its likely residents—and not all need be seniors.

However, this nirvana is not likely to happen soon enough for some, so some improvisation for the here and now is needed to nurture—and to normalize—INTERdependence. A few rather obvious ideas, none especially innovative in themselves, are potentially simple starting points—with some of them perhaps already ongoing:

- Creating a community of care by gathering friends or other like-minded people onto a kind of roster and then, when someone needs something done, posting this request via email with volunteers then following through. This was useful recently for a friend who had major surgery and couldn't do much on her own. Several signed up to be "on call" to shop, clean, go for a walk, whatever, when her partner (and this could as well have been her child) had to return to work or was just plain exhausted. And for one account of how a community of friends supported another, in this case a woman facing death, June Callwood's Twelve weeks in spring: The inspiring story of Margaret and her team (Key Porter Books, 2003 – first published in 1986) is well worth (re)reading.

- A variation on this is to update the idea of "neighbourhood watches" and apply it to multiple resident dwellings. All it takes is a sign on the door of an apartment to show who is taking part and who thereby can help with—or needs help with—inside (or outside) chores. Or who just wants a visitor. We just simply watch out for each other in a slightly organized fashion.

- Another approach was first used successfully by many women in pre-daycare days when they had young children—and it's no less relevant now. Create informal childcare co-ops arranged so that each woman has assigned hours each week when she is in charge of all the kids with the rest of the week free to do what she wants. In the one I was part of, a group of us worked out the schedule so that a three to four-hour stint one morning per week turned into four mornings we could use at will while others did their shifts. The kids loved it and so did the moms. And similar evening babysitting arrangements were done through the use of "chits," bartering, or other non-monetary methods of exchange. Updating these approaches, we might consider including grandmoms who live too far from their own families, single women who want to be "aunties" and others who would enjoy offering these services to overworked mothers—time off for the latter, while the former can have the joys of reading stories or teaching some skills to this extended family.

- And why not set up general "time banks" where people exchange services without exchanging money, with different models possible. These also work to create community and solidarity.

A recent CBC radio documentary on a project for older women in France elicited lots of positive responses, many asking "why can't we do it here." Well, why can't we have our own Baba Yagas house—or some variant—here?

Women have for too long been socialized to think giving care to others is our role in life, especially unpaid and unvalued caregiving. This is certainly an assumption we must oppose. But yet, giving does tend to make us feel good, with this feeling reinforcing the behaviour. By contrast, getting help doesn't have this appeal: society tends to make us feel inadequate or worse when we call for help—and to attack and stigmatize what is seen as our "neediness" and "dependency." But we do need to value communal getting and giving in feminist collective ways.

This likely isn't a message easy to accept by a generation or more of women who had to learn to be self-sufficient the hard way when divorce, injury, or illness suddenly made us realize our lack of survival skills due to gendered socialization that had limited our education and employment options. For many of us only individual solutions were in our repertoires. A complicated message especially for those heterosexual married women who may have only belatedly felt strong enough to say that they weren't on permanent call to satisfy the whims and needs of others—usually the men in their lives at home and at work.

But perhaps we went too far too often in proclaiming this as our "independence" and in how we viewed "giving." Feminist researcher, Sue Sherwin, has wisely reminded us that women's "autonomy" is "relational" and it's a useful way to envision how we actually do live our lives and make our choices. Put another way, we are who we are in relation to others (for better or for worse). If we at least start to accept how interdependence and our relations with others are probably the real independence of the future—and of now—we just might get things to change without backsliding to gendered stereotypes. No nirvana is promised, but perhaps just a richer existence.

There is at least one potential problem looming and to be avoided, however. Clever marketers have recognized that we need help with many things, and so the "outsourcing" of a full range of personal helpers—from those who find us partners to those who will feed and bury us has become a growth industry kept afloat by the privileged (see Arlie Hochschild's wonderful recent book on this, The Outsourced Self, Picador, 2013). But surely the marketplace isn't really the way to manage our personal relationships, needs, and problems by assigning these as "tasks" to be done by strangers paid unconscionably low wages. Interdependence surely has nothing to do with "outsourcing"—and paying for—the fulfillment of our desires and needs. Nor with approaches that will further gaps and inequities between and among women.

Moreover, it has nothing to do with the increasingly sophisticated "social" robots on offer to not just clean our houses but apparently also to give us emotional support, and even offer sex. The ads gush with suggestions that "If you're middle-aged now, perhaps your closest companion in your dotage will be a wirelessly connected android that traipses after you, bringing iced tea or martinis, and reminding you to take your medications, send a birthday card to your grandson, and sell your Cisco stock" (sic, and also sick). This just flaunts the growing commodification and commercialization of human relationships, something we surely need to reject.

Robots and the outsourcing of our social needs appear to be serious symptoms of—not solutions to—some major societal problems. They are also likely causes of new inequities and injustices. We need to address the problems directly and not search for proxies, people or technologies to replace our human needs to connect and care for each other, or to replace global social and political programs that will enable us to build communities and solidarity. 

To avoid all magical fixes, the oppression of others, and the commodification of care, and to achieve true change for the well-being of all women, we need to ensure that the movements/approaches we want are created by those who will use them and do not become merely another sales option on a realtor's or domestic service agency's list for the privileged few (at the expense, often, of the impoverished many). We are talking about true social housing, about co-housing options, and not condominia with extra services; about collaborating and helping each other respectfully and mutually in solidarity and not about hiring others to care for us or failing to value women's work.

Above all, perhaps, we need to recognize and value our INTERdependence and ensure it develops healthily and respectfully. This will take work; changing individualistic notions of autonomy and well-being won't be easy. Nor will it be easy to remove persisting gendered expectations about women. But feminists have never shied away from resisting cultural norms—and from doing this in solidarity with each other. We can do it again.

Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women's health and women's health policies. Also an academic based at McGill University and passionate about writing, Abby is past president of the CWHN, and is now on the board of the FQPN where she works closely with them in building an inclusive reproductive justice movement in Québec.

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