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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.

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