Growing Older: Independence and Needing Help


July 15, 2013 by Jean

For much of my life, I’ve been regarded as a fiercely independent person. When I was in my early teens, there was an ad on television (I no longer have any idea what product was being advertised) that featured a conversation between a mother and daughter and ended with the punch line, “Mother, I’d rather do it myself.” Whenever this ad would come on, my whole family would hoot and chortle and exclaim, “It’s Jean! It’s Jean”!” A decade later, when I was a young married woman, my husband’s most bitter complaint about me was that I was “too damned independent.”

In the 35 years that I’ve been living alone, my independent streak has been a very handy quality. I’ve often argued that one person can do almost anything if you just stop and think first about how to do it. This conviction was affirmed in my first decade of living alone when the large cabinet television I had inherited from my parents died. I went out and bought a new portable television, and lived for months with it perched on top of the cabinet containing the dead television. Then, as I drove home from work one evening, I noticed all kinds of furniture and appliances out along the sides of the road and realized that this was the one week a year when the city trash collection would pick up any item – my chance, finally, to get rid of the dead TV. Except that there was no one else home in my apartment building to help me get the monster from my 2nd floor apartment down to the street. The dead television was way too heavy for me to lift and carry alone; but I realized with a sinking feeling that if I didn’t find a way to get it out to the curb, I’d have to live with it for another year. That realization provided considerable motivation for creative thinking. Eventually, I figured out that I could get the cabinet and its electronic innards out to the street without help by rolling it end over end in a kind of controlled fall down the stairs and out to the curb.

In more recent years, when I bought a screened gazebo to put up on my new deck, I was chagrinned to open the box and find that the first instruction was that erecting the gazebo required a minimum of two people and absolutely couldn’t be done by one person alone. With no one available to help, I decided to try it alone. Two hours later, it was all put together – and I’ve been putting it up every spring and taking it down every fall since without assistance.

The downside of figuring out how to do two-person jobs alone and priding myself on the ability to do so has been that I lost the art of asking for help. Indeed, as time went on and I took on more and more complex projects alone, asking for help started to feel like a sign of failure, and I found it more and more difficult to do so. The result in recent years has been a number of home and garden projects stalled because I haven’t figured out how to finish them alone and I also haven’t figured out how to get help with them.

For me, part of growing older is developing a more nuanced understanding of what I can and can’t do on my own. This summer, as I commit myself to making progress on one problem project each week (see Retirement Preview: The Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle), I am learning to accept my own limitations, recognizing that remaining independent in the ways that really count (for example, being able to live alone) involves giving up some of my famous independence, and learning how to get help when I need it.

9 thoughts on “Growing Older: Independence and Needing Help

  1. Emily says:

    Oh Jean, I envy your patience with assembling things! Although I can (eventually) figure out the directions (even the ones with no words and only vague illustrations), I hate the time it takes. But yours is indeed a very valuable skill and virtue.
    However, given that you’ve mentioned in several entries that you recognize that you need to make time to cultivate friends, asking people to help put something together or create a new garden space in exchange for a simple meal afterwards is a great way to accomplish several goals at once. At least, I’ve found it so. I’d much rather cook for people and have their company (and laughter) while struggling with instructions that have been translated too many times than wrestle with it alone.

    • Jean says:

      Emily, I like the suggestion of inviting people to dinner and putting them to work — especially helpful for simple moving tasks where the items that need to be moved are too heavy for one person. I actually understand things best by reading instructions (assuming the instructions are in understandable English — not always the case), so I don’t mind following assembly instructions. The bigger challenge for me is building things that I haven’t built before, where I have to figure out the needed materials, buy or gather them, and then actually do the building, with or without written instructions. These projects are big learning experiences, but sometimes intimidating. This is where I need to learn how to be more realistic about what I can take on myself and what I need to ask for (or hire) help with.

  2. Jean I think it is harder for women as we are almost looked upon as failures if we can’t do it all alone. With some health issues I have found I have swung the opposite way and rely too much on my husband. By the way, I have had to postpone my retirement. I hope to retire this fall but it may be not until next year. Lots of factors played into the decision. I am OK with it right now and my boss was happy to have me back even if it is for a little while or part time as I was offered that if I don’t want to work full time.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I’m sorry you’ve had to postpone your retirement; I know you were looking forward to it. Is part-time work a serious option? A lot of my faculty colleagues do a part-time phase-in to retirement; it provides a period of feeling your way while still maintaining a pay check.

  3. Jean says:

    I had to laugh at your x-husband’s remark about you being too damned independent. I had a guy break off an engagement back in my 20s because he thought I was too independent. He wanted a 1950s TV version of a wife and that didn’t fit my women’s lib vision.

  4. Janette says:

    I just left my daughter in law’s house. She was brought up to believe that not asking for help brought independence.
    Here is my perspective. By being asked to help, I am asked to join into her life and the life of my son and grand daughter. By being forced to ask to help puts me in the situation of feeling that I am not needed or wanted in their lives. She is slowly understanding this and is beginning to ask. In turn, I do not push.
    Didn’t you find great joy in helping your students? Why then would it not be great joy for others to help you?
    Some of the people I valued the most growing up where the professors and professionals who retired to my neighborhood. Ms Littlefield literally charted my path in her front room on warm Phoenix days over a glass of lemonade (while I reached to the highest points of her bookcase to get some research things down).
    Enjoy others who enjoy your wisdom as they help you.
    Wonderful blog!

    • Jean says:

      Janette, Thank you for this perspective. It brought back vivid memories of a therapist 30 years ago asking me how I felt when others asked me for help. I thought I had learned this lesson then; apparently not!

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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