Subversive behavior may be the key to aging well. A British study published in December 2022, of people born in 1921 found that “subversive tactics,” combined with humor, contribute to a sense of independence and a positive attitude toward life.
The study of participants aged 95 years does not suggest that older people should undermine the efforts of caregivers to keep them safe and healthy. It does suggest that older people who are capable of making independent decisions find ways to exercise that independence, even against the advice of younger family members who care for them. If the decisions they make are not obviously harmful, the exercise of independence is not necessarily a bad thing.
Older people who enjoy relatively good health often find themselves in a battle for independence. Caregivers and younger family members might try to micromanage an older person’s life, hovering nearby to make sure they don’t lose their balance or take risks that have unpleasant consequences. People who have made their own decisions through the course of a long life are not quick to surrender control to others.
Overtly challenging younger family members who think they know what is best for an older relative can lead to tension and strife, even though their interactions are made with the best of intentions. The researchers found that the happiest participants in the study pick their battles, countering frustrating demands made with the best of intentions with strategies that allow them to maintain independence and some sense of control while avoiding confrontation.
While the phrase “subversive tactics” might have a negative connotation, the study found that older people maintain positivity by finding ways to stand up to well-meaning family members without undermining family relationships. They take control of their lives rather than allowing younger family members to make every decision or intercede for them. Their secret: relying on humor or secrecy.
Agreeing to a particular behavior while secretly doing the opposite is one example of a “subversive tactic”. When an older person doesn’t feel the need to take a nonprescription medication recommended by a family member or caregiver, a promise to take it later — with no intention of doing so — allows the older person to retain control over decisions while avoiding family conflict. For example, one study participant felt no need to follow a family member’s advice to take Paracetamol because she didn’t believe that minor aches warranted medication. By leaving the impression that she would take the medication later, she placed her independent decision-making above that of a relative.
Older people who don’t want to be shadowed by younger people when they run errands might perform the errands secretly, when their younger relatives are not present. Their family members might think it is too risky for a 95-year-old relative to walk to a pharmacy or deli, but older people are often capable of making their own risk calculations. If an adult is entitled to make her own risk calculations at 35, why shouldn’t a person of 95 be allowed to engage in actions that pose only a very low degree of risk or harm?
Making autonomous decisions improves the sense of well-being even if older relatives might take more risks than their children or grandchildren regard as optimum. One of the researchers told a reporter that “a bit of risk-taking, particularly with their health, was also important in order to keep their autonomy.”
Joking with family members also minimizes family anxiety about an older person’s autonomous behavior. “You know I’ve always been stubborn” is a more positive response to criticism than “Just leave me alone.” Cheerfully recharacterizing a fall as “just a little slide” might alleviate the concern of a younger family member while sending a polite message that the younger person should back off.
Older people who don’t want to carry a call button with them might hide it in a closet and claim to have lost it. Making a joke about being absent-minded (“I’m so forgetful, I just don’t know where it could have gone”) allows the person to feel untethered to the call button while avoiding confrontation about her refusal to carry it. Unless a call button is obviously needed, a relative’s sense that “I helped my grandmother” by giving her a call button might be less important than the grandmother’s belief that her life is better without one.
While everyone ages in their own way, it isn’t unusual for people in their 90s to become dependent on caregivers. Whether they live with family or in an assisted living facility, older adults may need help preparing meals, shopping, financial management, or engaging in other activities of daily living.
Losses of autonomy are usually gradual. The study suggests that older people adapt by reframing what it means to be independent. One study participant who resided in an assisted living facility was proud to say that “I’ve still got my independence.” To explain that statement, he pointed to his ability to get out of bed and get dressed on his own. Relative to other residents of his own age, he considered himself to be doing well. By comparing himself to peers rather than his younger self, he was able to maintain a feeling of independence and the dignity that comes with autonomy.
Family members can help older relatives maintain their sense of independence by taking dignity and autonomy into account before arguing or negotiating about the relative’s decisions. Some relatives may appreciate the security provided by a call button while others might prefer to rely on their own ability to cope with emergencies. Forcing an older person who doesn’t really need one to wear a call button might leave the feeling of dependency on the relative.
By recognizing subversive strategies to resist well-meaning attempts control an older person’s life, younger relatives can learn that caring about an older person doesn’t necessitate micromanaging her life. Respecting the relative’s right to make his or her own choices might mean accepting the risks that an older person chooses to take. Older relatives might need help with their activities of daily living, but younger relatives and friends should understand that resistance to help might be a reasonable way to protect autonomy and self-esteem.