young woman assisting an older woman so she can live at home

The Myth of Independence

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The risks of “living at home as long as possible.”

From the time we are two and declaring “no!” – until we are two-plus-ninety, we value our independence.  Independence is intrinsically linked to the widely held view of seniors “living at home as long as possible.”  

But as much as we value this freedom, as we age into our 80’s and 90’s we need to recognize limits to our self-reliance, such as increased physical frailty, vision and hearing changes, and losing a driving license.  

We need to ask ourselves: “Why is it desirable to have old people living in old homes?”  Both the people and the home need a lot of support. And why do we encourage older people to wait “as long as possible?”  This implies that we should wait until a crisis occurs. Let’s be more proactive. There is wisdom in knowing when and where to make a Smart Move. (1)

We often hear or make comments like: “Do you know that she is 91 and still living in her own house? Isn’t that wonderful? She is so independent.”  And my reply: “Perhaps it is wonderful – but for whom?  And is she really independent?  Or is she relying on family and friends to provide daily support?”   

Why Stay?

It is not surprising that most seniors wish to live in their homes.   A familiar house and neighbourhood are comforting.  For those with visual or memory impairments, the familiar surroundings contribute to feeling safe and in control. The family home may also be important to the younger generation. They associate it with powerful memories of growing up, and still consider it part of their roots.  

Today, however, there are many more housing options for an aging population. Moving into supportive environment at the right time might serve everyone’s best interests. It could provide relief for the family, and opportunities to socialize, and have personal care for the senior.

Invisible Caregivers

When I see someone over 85 living alone in a private home, I look for the “invisible” family members or friends providing regular support. As Cheryl Mahaffy wrote in “Sandwiched Caregivers”(2), at least two-thirds of those over 75 depend on others for help.   

Often a senior’s first call is to a son or daughter.  The older adult may need help getting to medical appointments, shopping, meal preparation, house cleaning and maintenance.   The responsibility puts adult children in a push-pull dilemma. They are pushing to keep their own family and career demands on track while feeling the pull of wanting to give back to a parent.

Both generations are trying to do the right thing.  Seniors hear from others, such as doctors, friends and society, how great it is that they are living at home as long as possible.  Family and friends are told to support independence.  Continuing “invisible” support leads to caregiver fatigue and strain on family relationships.  And then the worrying begins. 

Worry – when the phone rings at odd hours.

Worry – when the phone rings and rings at the other end and they do not know if their family member is safe.

Worry – which may keep them from taking an out-of-town holiday – in case something happens.

Suggest Support

So perhaps the next time you hear – or find yourself saying – “isn’t it wonderful that an older adult is living at home as long as possible” – consider taking a different approach. Ask whether the family has support. Explore whether this lifestyle is working for everyone.  If not, encourage everyone to seek information about possible options.

Author: Maureen Osis, gerontological nurse and family therapist, retired.

Originally published in Alberta Views, Oct/Nov issue, 2005. Adapted and reprinted with permission.


  1. SMART MOVES. Future article to be published with “The Meaning Of Home.”
  2. Cheryl Mahaffy. Sandwiched Caregivers. albertaviews, October 1, 2005.

Want to offer support to someone (or yourself) who is an invisible caregiver?
Read: Do My Aging Parents Need Help?

Suggest the following articles that provide links to useful information.

Seniors Information Services

Caregiver Information & Support

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1 thought on “The Myth of Independence”

  1. When I wrote this article for Alberta Views, I was a Family Therapist with a private practice. My clients were mid-life and older adults so I saw family dynamics and caregiving from both perspectives.

    I was also aware of conversations among health professionals and policy planners that “seniors should live at home as long as possible.” I observed that for health care planners it was a less costly option to have families provide the support instead of creating more programs and services.

    I understood and appreciated the desire of seniors to stay in their homes. The comfort of remaining in a familiar environment and community. The anxiety about the stress and costs of moving. For some, however, the insistence on living at home as long as possible was not reasonable. Their growing needs were getting harder to meet and taking a toll on the younger generation. Refusal to look at options such as seniors housing with some personal care support also caused isolation, which could not be addressed solely by the family.

    I respected the intentions of the adult-children to do as much as possible to allow their parents to remain at home. When they started they had no idea that the situation could go on for years. That their parent’s needs would continually increase. I saw the price paid by the adult children. The hours given each week to make this wish a reality. The fatigue and emotional drain as these invisible caregivers could not possibly meet all of the needs. Those who had abandoned vacations with their children in order to be “on call.” The workers – usually women- who retired early or moved to part-time work to have more time available.

    And I saw caregiver burnout. May not sound so serious but it often causes serious health problems. And can take a very long time to recover, even after the stress is gone.

    So, I wrote the opinion piece. For seniors with unreasonable demands on their daughter or son. For the adult children that they would know that trying to meet increasing needs would come at a price. For my colleagues, nurses, doctors, social workers, that they would talk more about community services, and about ways to support both the aging parents and the family caregivers.

    Judging by the letters received by the magazine, the article resonated with lots of people. Some seniors were angry that I would dare to suggest they needed to move. Others were curious about options that might be available. Some families wrote that they accepted their obligations as “duty” while others were relieved to hear that they were not alone in feeling tired and unsupported.

    I share the article again. I hope that it encourages even one family who is experiencing distress with this situation to talk and find a shared solution that is in everyone’s best interest.

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