The illusion of eternal independence: An ESRC Better Lives Essay

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Social anthropologist Chloë Place, a research student at the University of Sussex, had both worked for the National Health Service working with older people with dementia and spent a lot of time living in Andalusia when she became interested in studying approaches to aging in the Andalusian context. In this shortlisted essay from the ESRC Better Lives Writing Competition, in which PhD students who have received money from the ESRC write short essays about how their research leads too better lives, she describes how her ethnographic look at kinship care in a rural Spanish setting influences her perspectives on care elsewhere.

“Buenas noches”, I say for the fifteenth time, planting the last round of goodnight kisses on everyone’s cheeks. I have spent the evening with a large extended family who are taking part in my research in a small Andalusian town. Spain currently holds the crown for the highest life expectancy of any EU country, and is predicted to overtake Japan by 2040 as global leader in longevity. Yet, despite increasing use of elder-care homes across the west, Spain continues to operate on a family-based care model, with most dependent older people living at home, cared for by family.

After dinner, we all accompany the eldest family member, Carmencita, who recently celebrated her 97th birthday, down the road to her house where she lives with her youngest daughter. It has taken a long time to wish everyone goodnight. There seems to be an unwritten rule that goodnight must be spoken about for at least an hour before you actually go to bed.

This nightly ritual is quite different from my own family in Bristol, where a quick shout of ‘night’ is the most that’s expected of you. This difference in daily routine makes me reflect on relationships and the value people place on independence…

Growing up, I had always been encouraged to develop a strong sense of independence. I left home as soon as I could, went to university far away with no plans of ever returning. But what happens when this taken-for-granted independence is no longer possible? When my grandmother, who had been living alone for years after my grandfather’s death, was no longer able to live independently, she went through a series of live-in carers, before eventually we reluctantly organised her admission to a care home. She had always insisted she did not want to be a burden who was dependent on us.

UK culture places tremendous importance on cultivating independence. Thus, DE-pendency, an inevitable effect of ageing, when declining health causes us to rely increasingly more on others, destroys this highly valued independence, seeming to threaten our fundamental sense of self. But does quality of later life really depend on independence?

Perhaps it is this deep-seated fear of dependency that stimulates public health narratives, which, concerned over ageing populations, tend to utilise a kind of apocalyptic tone to describe an impending ‘ageing crisis’, threatening to overload public healthcare services with an avalanche of dependent older adults. Health promotion campaigns employ a rhetoric around ‘active ageing’ to preserve later life independence, suggesting that through exercising regularly and generally ‘keeping busy’, older adults can exert personal-control to resist dependency. Yet such an approach could mean those who do find themselves dependent on others in later life feel to blame for a kind of personal failure to ‘age well’.

Yet such views of later life dependency are not universal. Anthropological research in India shows later life is considered a spiritual time when older adults must rest in preparation for death, accepting total dependence on younger relatives to attend to their every need; whilst in China, parents’ dependence on their adult children’s care in older age displays the moral strength of the family.

However, it is not simply a case of ‘the west versus the rest’, whereby western countries operate through individualism and independence, and non-western countries rely on family networks and dependency. We need not travel far from the UK to encounter cultures that approach later life dependency differently.

My research explores the experiences of people caring for older relatives in a small rural community in Andalusia. I work in a day centre for people with dementia and spend time with families who are caring for dependent older relatives.

Every morning, 97-year-old Carmencita is accompanied by her youngest daughter to her eldest daughter’s house, where she spends the day. Her grandson then walks her to her son’s home, where she and the rest of the family have dinner together before finally returning to her youngest daughter’s home to sleep. The protracted goodnight kisses between the large extended family may to me feel like a long drawn-out ritual, but could be a way the family shows and celebrates their need for one another. In this community it appears that dependency on family in later life is a sign of a better life.

Cross-cultural research into people’s experiences of ageing can uncover alternative approaches to later life dependency. As global populations shift, more countries, like the UK, are facing higher numbers of dependent older people. Rather than denying dependency and encouraging people to hold onto an illusion of eternal independence, my research questions the importance we place on independence, exploring the value of cultivating caring dependent relationships within communities. Medical science research has increased life expectancies, but now social science research must explore how people can not just lengthen their lives, but better them.

Shortlisted and winning essays in the series:



  • Notes on a G-string | Rosie Cowan, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Better lives with better toilets | Ian Ross, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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