Healthy Dependency

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

Suzanne, a friend of ours, recently told us over dinner that she was concerned regarding her father's increasing reliance on his housekeeper. We asked why she was worried.

"She picks out all his clothes," Suzanne said. "He never goes shopping without her. And she tells him when he needs to get a haircut! I just think it's just odd, don't you?"

We get asked this a lot, and our answer-to Suzanne's obvious disappointment-was that it's actually not all that unusual. Here's the thing: Suzanne's father has limited vision and hearing, and can no longer drive on his own. Suzanne, though devoted to her dad in many ways, isn't willing to put her career on hold to take care of his days-to-day needs. And thanks to his housekeeper, Suzanne's father has been able to remain in his home of 50+ years, living independently with a bit of extra help; even his daughter admits he's been eating better (and she's been sleeping better) since Magda arrived.

It's a quirk of American culture-the widespread belief that mature adults must fend for themselves, and go it alone no matter how great the challenge. After all, that's what grownups do (or so we're told). But none of us, no matter how strong, can navigate life's waters on our own. Healthy dependency is the ability to seek guidance and support from others appropriately and feel good-not guilty-about asking for help when you need it. Healthy dependency means using the help you receive from others to learn and grow….to confront life's challenges, not shrink from them.

An important caveat here: To understand healthy dependency you need to look below the surface, beyond behavior, to the underlying goals that shape the behavior. When you adopt that approach you realize that sometimes we show increased dependency in one area so we can maintain (or even increase) our ability to function autonomously in other areas. Psychologists refer to this as compensatory dependency because our enhanced functioning in one domain compensates for our increased dependency in another.

Compensatory dependencies are adaptive (they facilitate successful aging), so don't be too quick to judge. If you show increased dependency in one area of life, analyze the situation to see if this increased dependency may actually be helping you thrive in some other area. If so it's adaptive-it's healthy dependency. For example, if you're having trouble driving and need help with transportation, but you use this help to join an interest group (like a bridge club) that lets you connect with others, that's OK. If you have a friend who requires in-home care from a visiting nurse or home health aide, and he uses this help to manage his diabetes more effectively so he can continue to live independently, that's healthy-not unhealthy-dependency.


Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, published by Newmarket Press. The second edition, revised and updated, was recently released. Here's the link: