The Unhealthy Myth of Self-Reliance as We Age

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, argues that our cultural myth of rugged individualism serves us poorly as we age. I am learning first-hand how the myth of self-reliance can limit us in surprising ways.

I am a planner. I think ahead and try to anticipate what kinds of preparations I need to make for the future. Prior to ending my career in education, I planned what I wanted my life to ‘look like’ once I was in charge of my own time. I read just about everything I could locate on how to successfully transition into what some people like to call ‘retirement.’ I also read hundreds of articles and dozens of books on the healthy attitudes and behaviors I wanted to incorporate into my life. I had felt very prepared for my post-career years.

A Lesson in Share-Giving

What I hadn’t anticipated was that a loved-one (someone I’ll refer to as ‘Fred’) would develop a debilitating health problem. While we are hoping that medical treatment will radically improve Fred’s situation, we don’t know for certain if it will get better or worse over time.

Fred has always been an active, strong person. He would never hesitate to help anyone, but for now, he is the one who needs a little help. For the past few months, I’ve tried to provide support and assistance to Fred in various ways. In return, Fred has been gracious and appreciative.

Yesterday, Fred expressed a concern that he was becoming a burden. Having been raised to be self-reliant at all costs, I could understand this concern. When my own parents started getting older, they feared more than anything becoming a burden to anyone.  But now I’m learning to rethink that notion of self-reliance.

None of us are as independent as we might want to believe. I feel a surprising amount of joy and a deeper connection with my own humanity as I assist someone I care about very much. I have been given a gift that I didn’t realize I needed.

Accepting Help Allows Us to Be More Human

A few weeks ago, Fred ordered an electric lift chair to help him safely get up from a seated position. One afternoon, I saw that his chair had arrived; it was in a big crate in front of the garage. Because of my deeply ingrained belief that I needed to be self-reliant, I pushed, pulled, and dragged the crate to the front porch. (I should point out that I am a five-foot-three-inch 67-year-old woman.) Then, I used leverage to carefully move the crate up three stairs. After nearly 20 minutes, I was able to move the crate to the front door.

When Fred saw what I had done, he asked why I hadn’t I asked one of the neighbors to help? I could have easily injured myself as a result of my stubborn independence. Of course, the neighbors would have been willing to help me. Why hadn’t I asked?

Trying to walk in the footsteps of the self-reliant ‘rugged’ individual is really counter to our basic human need for connection.  I am learning that when I need help, it doesn’t make me a lessor individual to ask for support; rather, it makes me more human. Thank you, Fred.

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