When the average person goes about their daily routine, they don’t pause to consider that a day may come when they won’t be able to do those things autonomously anymore.
Unless they’re disabled in some fashion, they’ve likely taken care of various daily needs and chores on their own for most of their lives. It doesn’t occur to them that everything in their world, that they usually take for granted, could suddenly be beyond their reach.
Typically, able-bodied people don’t think about how it would feel to need help with bathing or getting dressed, or to need someone else’s assistance to communicate for them.
Sometimes this can happen due to a sudden, unexpected illness or injury. A stroke or a car accident can leave someone incapacitated for months, while degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can also break down one’s independence. Of course, so can the natural aging process.
Alternatively, your loss of independence may have happened due to life circumstances. For example, an unexpected divorce or job loss might have required you to move back in with your parents.
Suddenly, the independence and sovereignty you’ve enjoyed for years—even decades—is snatched out of your hands, and you must abide by other people’s rules. This can be just as frustrating as the aforementioned health issues.
It’s important to learn coping mechanisms to deal with life changes such as these, and learn how to shift direction as you move forward.
How Loss Of Independence Affects A Person
Different experiences and circumstances will affect people in different ways. Some will be able to accept major life changes with grace or humor, while others may get depressed or angry and embittered. It all depends on what kind of independence loss is going on here.
Here are some of the most common ways in which a loss of independence might affect a person’s life.
It’s not uncommon for a person to feel infantilized when and if they’re suddenly dependent on others. A person who’s been independent for decades might suddenly have to justify their behaviors or choices to their parents or their adult children, or need to rely on them for personal care. As such, they’re no longer seen as capable adults; they are viewed as having reverted to a juvenile state.
Those who love them may try to go above and beyond to care for them and tend to their every need, and they’ll appreciate that on many levels. That said, they won’t appreciate being told what they should and shouldn’t do, or not being asked permission to be touched, cleaned, or fed. They may not even be asked what they want to eat, wear, and so on.
This over-attentive doting can extend beyond convalescence as well. For example, if a person is recovering from an illness or job loss, they may now be trying to get back on their feet (perhaps even literally).
Their caregivers, however, might still see them as fragile and will still try to do everything for them. This may include forcibly taking things away from the person and preventing them from making their own decisions.
Furthermore—and this is the worst part—the one in recovery might be spoken to as though they are either a child or mentally impaired. Those who have previously spoken with courtesy and respect now address them with the same modulated cadences or phrases they’d use with a toddler.
For an adult who has spent decades being independent, this is incredibly demoralizing. They’ll feel angry and resentful at being disrespected and treated like an infant, on top of their frustration with the struggles they’re already dealing with.
Loss of their sense of self.
A person who has based their sense of self on their capabilities and achievements might feel lost when their independence falters. Who is a runner if they can no longer run? Or a lawyer who can no longer practice law?
If your life thus far has been based on your identity, but now your identity has shifted into something completely different, then who are you really?
Trying to figure out who you are after spending years living comfortably in your perception of yourself can be terrifying. Your personal foundation has dropped out from below your feet. You’re going to have to find entirely new ground to stand upon, and then determine what that means for you, your social life, your values, your relationships, and more.
Feelings of worthlessness.
Similarly to the point mentioned above, a person whose self-esteem has been tied in with their achievements will often feel worthless when they’re no longer able to keep achieving.
For example, a cyclist and triathlete I know is devastated at the thought of not being able to compete in the sports they love anymore, but they feel that they’re now too old and “broken” to embarrass themselves by competing against people young enough to be their children.
They’re now trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be, with one of their biggest, decades-long support pillars torn out from under them.
How To Deal With Loss Of Independence
There are a number of different ways that you can deal with these situations, though they will depend (no pun intended) on your own individual circumstances.
For instance, temporary dependence on your family due to financial constraints will be very different from having to depend on your spouse or partner because your body isn’t functioning properly.
1. Try to cultivate a great sense of humor.
You’ll have days in which you’ll feel like your own physical form is betraying you, or feel frustrated by your financial dependence on someone else. This is why it’s absolutely vital to cultivate a good sense of humor.
If you can approach everything that’s happening with jokes and patience rather than frustration and anger, you may find it is significantly easier to handle.
Have you ever had the choice between laughing at an unfortunate circumstance or getting upset and embarrassed about it? When we get upset or angry over a misstep or something we can’t control, we intensify the negativity associated with it.
In contrast, when we can laugh at how utterly ridiculous it all is, tensions alleviate and lighthearted forward momentum can occur.
2. Be kind to yourself.
It’s easy to beat ourselves up for perceived shortcomings. Even if we find ourselves dependent upon others due to circumstances that are completely out of our own control, we’ll still punish ourselves for feeling like a burden.
I’ve seen people with Crohn’s punch themselves in the belly in anger that their “stupid body” didn’t work properly and was causing them misery. Meanwhile, those who lost businesses due to economic hardships berate themselves for “not making the right choices” or “not seeing it coming” and making alternate plans.
If you were helping a loved one through similar circumstances to those you’re dealing with, would you be kind and compassionate toward them? Or insult them on a daily basis because you think they’re a failure?
How about if your partner or parent struggled with an illness or broken bones? Would you mock them for being weak and pathetic? Or would you want to help them heal and thrive to the best of their ability?
You deserve your own loving kindness and compassion as much as anyone else in your life. Whenever you feel tempted to hate yourself or get angry at where you’re at right now, take a deep breath and simply wish yourself joy. You’d be amazed at how effective that can be.
3. Practice acceptance and gratitude.
Most of the frustrations and anxieties that come with loss of independence have to do with wanting something that can’t be attained, rather than accepting what is.
One great way to alleviate the difficulties you’re dealing with is to lean into it rather than fighting it, and trying to be grateful for what you have, rather than what you feel that you’ve lost.
You can’t race around town to run your own errands? Hey, that means you get to curl up in your nice, cozy bed and catch up on all that reading you’ve been setting aside for years. Chewing tough foods makes your teeth and jaw ache? Hello ice cream land!
There is a silver lining to every single situation, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the moment.
When a friend of mine was dying of cancer, I asked her what she was most grateful for. In addition to loving the quality time she was able to spend with her family, she told me she was grateful that she’d never have to file taxes or have to get dental work done again. We had a solid laugh over that one because of the sheer absurdity of it, but those were a couple of things that brought her peace and joy.
Find your bliss and revel in it whenever possible.
4. Find purpose, and do what you can when you can.
I’ve had to recuperate from serious illness before, and what kept me grounded in the midst of frustration and dependence was to do what I could with what I had available to me that day. I needed a goal or a project to focus on to keep me moving forward, and I worked toward it with whatever amount of energy I had at that point in time.
You may not be able to do all the things you used to, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of doing some of them, as well as countless other different or new projects and pursuits.
For example, if you’ve always been an avid reader but now your eyesight is impaired, you can consider listening to audiobooks instead.
In my case, I had been a sculptor working in media such as clay, wax, and bronze. The issue I had to recover from prevented me from lifting anything heavy, so I switched over to fiber crafts.
Since I had some knitting experience, I started to make warm children’s clothes to send to orphanages and refugee camps overseas. This was still sculpture in a way, and the pieces I created were both utilitarian and helpful to others in need.
The key is to adapt and keep moving forward rather than getting despondent and doing nothing.
If you’re having difficulty determining a purpose for yourself, consider getting involved with volunteer groups. They might be able to direct your skills toward pursuits that are best suited to you, and socializing with others is excellent for avoiding self-isolation.
One of the best ways to get out of depression and beyond feelings of hopelessness about the future is to do something to help others. There are undoubtedly many other beings out there who could benefit immensely from your time, knowledge, and skills. Shift priorities from what you used to do to what you can do now, and dive in.
5. Let others know when they’re making you feel disrespected or overstepping.
You know what you’re capable of more than anyone else does. They might believe that they have your best intentions at heart, but if they try to inform you that you can’t do something when you know you can, or forcibly try to do it for you against your wishes, that’s not okay. At all.
If and when this happens, make this clear to them immediately.
Know that you’ll be met with defensiveness and upset because they’re “just trying to help.” At this point, you can let them know that if they sincerely want to help you, if they truly have your best interests at heart, they’ll help to ensure you’re still as independent as possible and respect your capabilities.
If necessary, enlist the help of your healthcare provider(s). Your partner or other family members may be more likely to listen to your professional caregiver than to you right now, as sad as that is.
Alternatively, if the dependence is financial rather than health-related, you can clarify the fact that, although you appreciate that you can live with them for now, that doesn’t mean that you’re reverting to the dynamic that was present when you were a teenager.
Many people associate dependence with kids, since that’s the most experience they’ve had with someone who has needed their help and support. Infants and children don’t need to be consulted as to their wants or preferences; they’re simply told what to do.
If these people are subconsciously infantilizing you due to circumstance, put a stop to that as quickly as possible.
On that same note:
6. Do what you can to re-establish personal sovereignty.
You may not be able to control everything in your life right now, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless.
If you’re temporarily dependent on people because of financial struggles, then try to do everything in your power to extricate yourself asap and get your full autonomy back. This may include consulting with a financial advisor or even taking out a small loan so you can cover the first and last month’s rent for your own apartment.
Until then, make arrangements with those you’re living with so you can be more autonomous. If you’re already employed, use your own money to buy your preferred personal products and at least some of your own groceries. If you aren’t employed yet, then make that an absolute priority by updating your CV and getting help from job placement agencies.
Alternatively, if you’re dependent because of health issues, you can make a point of choosing the projects or types of entertainment you’re using to stay engaged. Make sure that you make your wishes known when it comes to food preferences, rather than just going along with others’ suggestions.
If you feel that you’re trapped at home because nobody’s available to take you out (or they simply don’t want to go out when you do), look into different public transit options. Most cities have some form of transit specifically for those who need assistance. Additionally, you could look into having an occasional caregiver come by to do things like take you to get groceries or a haircut.
7. Change your definition of “independence.”
When most people think of the word “independence,” they define it as the ability to do absolutely everything on their own, without any help. Especially in Western and Northern countries, there’s a weighty expectation that everyone should be able to fend for themselves completely.
In fact, many people will mock those who don’t share their skillsets, or who ask for help in learning something they don’t already know.
Nothing in nature exists in a vacuum, and no one being can perform every single function needed in order to sustain life.
Yes, you can try to be as self-sufficient as possible, such as homesteading projects in which you grow or raise your own food, make your own clothes, and so on. Even in a scenario such as that, you’ll still need to buy supplies from other skilled laborers. You might excel at gardening but have neither the time nor the skills to spin and weave your own cloth.
You may have been trying to do everything yourself for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it was the right approach. In fact, life can be significantly more enjoyable and fulfilling if you’re part of a thriving system rather than trying to juggle all of it alone.
Determine which life skills and responsibilities are most important for you to take care of, and then delegate the others. Transform “independence” into “interdependence” and a lot of that depression or self-loathing will disappear.
8. Don’t make things worse by forcing the issue.
Those of us who are fiercely independent often take drastic measures to regain it by any means necessary. Unfortunately, although we may be successful on some fronts, we often manage to worsen the situation by trying to push too hard, too far, or too quickly.
Your broken femur might be mended by your doctor’s standards, but if you sign up for a 5km run this weekend because that’s what you used to do, you’ll be in agony. Furthermore, you’ll delay the healing process significantly.
Take things slowly and do what you can in small increments, rather than throwing yourself into them full-on and setting yourself up for further problems.
9. Choose to allow others to help you.
Sometimes, alleviating discomfort can be as simple as shifting perspective. For example, instead of saying “I HAVE to cook dinner,” you can shift that to “I GET to cook for those I love.” This transforms an obligation into an opportunity.
If you decide that you are *choosing* to allow others to help you and take care of you, rather than being obligated to depend upon them, that re-establishes your autonomy. This isn’t being forced upon you. You’re the one in control here!
10. Get supportive mental healthcare if and when needed.
It can be difficult to adapt to being less dependent, and it’s not uncommon for dark feelings to encroach. Many people who live with chronic illness and disability suffer from depression, and those nearing the end of their lives may be wracked with anxiety.
For others, the worst thing they can think of is coping with the fact that people see them differently than they did before, and that image isn’t something they feel they can live with.
Meanwhile, people who have had no choice but to move in with toxic or abusive parents might be dealing with both of these issues, plus PTSD. As a result, many people who are dealing with loss of independence turn to drugs and/or alcohol to help them cope.
This can make the situation so much worse, as these substances can damage systems that are already damaged or in decline. In addition, if you’re trying to be more independent but start to neglect personal hygiene or household cleaning because you’re under the influence, you’ll start to hate your life circumstances even more.
Furthermore, others may take this self-neglect as a sign that you need even more intervention and care, thus putting you in a position where you lose even more independence. It’s a vicious cycle in which nobody emerges the victor.
Please know that you don’t need to go through this alone. Even though your caregivers may be the most loving and supportive people imaginable, they may not be equipped to help guide you through the worst of the labyrinth before you. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you’re struggling. A good therapist is your greatest ally in adapting to your new circumstances.
Additional note: it’s important to protect yourself.
It’s sad that this even needs to be said, but when one is in a position of vulnerability, it’s very easy to be taken advantage of. For example, if you’re on bad terms with your grown child, they might use your current state as an opportunity to wrest control of your finances away from you.
This is especially easy to do if you’ve already granted them power of attorney, or if they can convince a couple of healthcare providers that you aren’t mentally competent enough to take care of yourself.
You may not even want to consider any of this as a possibility, but sadly it’s something to think about. The last thing you want is to end up in a situation against your will, with absolutely no say in your personal care.
Retain a lawyer if possible, and create a living will. On the off chance that you find yourself in a situation where you can’t communicate properly or aren’t considered of “sound enough” mind to make your own decisions, you’ll already have your personal wishes set down and witnessed by professionals whose job it is to protect your rights and autonomy.
Losing one’s independence—even temporarily—isn’t much fun at all. It’s easy to feel like you can’t do all the things you used to love anymore and spiral into feelings of worthlessness and depression.
In times like this, it’s important to remember that you weren’t born doing the things you previously enjoyed. You tried them out and they became favorites over time. Similarly, you now have the opportunity to try out new things, and explore entirely new interests that can help with getting out of a rut.
Remember that everything can change at a moment’s notice. In the same way that you found yourself in a situation of lessened independence, life’s wheel can turn and grant you more autonomy than you thought was possible. Maybe that new job will allow you to get your own place. Or, this mobility aid will help you regain your independence to go where you like, when you like.
Life isn’t over simply because your perception of independence has shifted. It has merely changed, and it’s up to you how you choose to spend the rest of it. Will you move forward and experience all life still has to offer? Or keep wallowing in self-pity about the version of yourself that you’ve now moved on from?