Independence in later life

In ths post I would like to plug an article on independence in later life by David Banister, Ann Bowling and myself that has recently been published in the ‘in press’ section of the journal Geoforum. In this article we interrogate independence — what it means to community dwelling older people and how they practice it.

The paper starts with a review of the conceptualisations of independence in the academic literature. We juxtapose individualist-liberal understandings that circulate through the medical realm and/or are inspired by the thinking of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill with non-modernist understandings in post-structuralist social theory. We then continue with an analysis of in-depth interviews with people aged 70 and over from across England (and Scotland).

The paper argues that independence is much more than not being dependent on others — next of kin, friends, neighbours, and so forth. But what exactly its meanings are, is difficult to ascertain. For these are fuzzy, fluid and shifting, and cannot be pinpointed or arrested through language. It is therefore important to also consider how independence is ‘done’, how it is practised. To this end, we draw on actor-network theory (among others) and argue that independence is an unstable outcome of attachments to, and dependencies on, bodies, technologies, infrastructures and so forth. The upshot of this is that dependence is primordial to independence: without dependencies no independence.

This has political import: It puts the positioning of independence in later life as natural or a necessary ingredient of successful or healthy ageing in a different light, and helps in resisting the widespread tendency of considering forms of dependency in later life as undesirable. Our point is of course not to celebrate dependencies as such. That would amount to making the same mistake as the na├»ve positioning of independence in later life as inherently good and desirable. That would also mean treating all dependencies as equal and being oblivious to the complex power asymmetries that mediate (and are constituted by) dependencies. The point is rather to criticise understandings of dependency in later life in terms of passivity, burden and undesirability — understandings that work to disadvantage older people (and others) who cannot act and behave in line with the (socially produced) ideal of independence.

In the paper we illustrate and elaborate our arguments with reference to everyday mobility — i.e. trips to places outside the house. We also elaborate an alternative conceptualisation of independence and independent mobility that, we feel, does more justice to the myriad dependencies that make possible independence and autonomy in relation to movement through space.

Further conceptual and empirical work remains to be done with regard to independence in later life, both in relation to out-of-home mobility and with regard to other domains of everyday life. I hope, however, that this paper helps people to use the term independence with more care and circumspection.

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  1. Pingback: Spatialities of Ageing | My Geographies

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