Why Interdependence is the Key to Independent Living

“How is life different compared to when you lived independently?”

A very well respected innovator and human centered designer asked this question of a group of about six seniors in their 80s and 90s at a recent Aging 2.0 event. This struck me as an odd way to phrase the question because a few of these seniors live at a Brookdale Independent Living community.

I thought: What do you mean when they lived independently? Aren’t they living with us independently? But the participants didn’t bat an eyelash – they answered thoughtfully, telling stories about their spouses who passed away and about their old neighbors on the perfect street where they hosted cookouts and raised their kids together. They did this in the sincere, slightly sad and humorous way only the wisest among us can pull off.

Then it struck me: they weren’t describing a life of independence. They wished they could go back to the rich life of social connections and interdependence they once enjoyed. They weren’t comparing their Brookdale Independent Living experience to the time of life that immediately preceded their move – after their spouse passed, and their social networks shrank, the house became too much work, and they found themselves alone. No, they were comparing life to the very interdependent and socially connected experience of many years ago.

This image of the isolated senior is closer to independence in my mind than what our industry offers in “Independent Living.” But we call it Independent Living because independence is a core American value. I can’t claim to know the roots of that value, but you see it everywhere: in our history and laws, in the glorification of the bootstrapping entrepreneur, in our obsession with car ownership and the image of hitting the open road. And sure, we begin to lose some elements of independence as we lose certain physical or cognitive abilities. But I contend that what we mourn the loss of most is not our own independence but the interdependence represented by our social connections and the purpose and joy they bring us. All of us are interdependent and that brings color and flavor to our lives.

This isn’t just my opinion. According to Health.com, socially connected individuals are less likely to get sick and are 50 percent more likely to live longer. In fact, in a joint study between the Stanford Center of Longevity and Brookdale that was published in the Journals of Gerontology in 2016, we found that people over 80 years old who used technology to connect with loved ones reported higher levels of mental and physical well-being, greater life satisfaction, lower loneliness and higher goal attainment. Bottom line: research shows that stronger social connections make you healthier and happier, and it’s not as hard to reengage seniors as you might think.

This finding prompted Brookdale to embark on a “Rewiring Aging” initiative and invest in new technologies and education for our communities. We implemented iPad training classes and a dementia-specific program called InTouch. And we’re not done. We’re launching a pilot program to give our residents less expensive and more convenient transportation options through a relationship with Lyft. We’re connecting residents to young entrepreneurs through our Entrepreneur in Residence program. And we continue to experiment with new technologies to create meaningful connections among our residents, their families and our associates.  

The magic here isn’t independence. It’s interdependence. It’s social connection. And I think, for most people, that’s the value of communal living. Whether high tech or no tech, that’s what we do. Our residents benefit from living in close proximity to people like themselves. Our associates and residents “adopt” each other, sharing stories and mourning together when someone leaves. The social connectivity of “Independent Living” is what makes our residents thrive.

So I’d like to strike the word “Independent” from the conversation and remember that none of us live independently. Next time you ask someone about their life, ask who they depend on and I think you’ll get a response that’s closer to what makes life worth living. 

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