Wellness and Aging: Learned Dependency and Aging

Several decades ago two prominent psychologists wondered whether giving institutionalized elderly people a tiny amount of control over something in their lives would have a positive influence on their personalities.

What they did was to give a house plant to each resident in a nursing home. Half of the residents were told that the plants would be cared for by the nursing staff. The other half were told that they were responsible for the care of the plants. They were to decide when to water the plant and how much sun it should have. At the beginning of the study, the two groups were similar in physical and mental vigor. Three weeks later, there was no difference in the health of the plants, but there was a lot of difference in the psychological adjustment of the residents who were put in charge of caring for their plants. The group given personal responsibility rated themselves as more alert, active and vigorous.

What then is the take-home message? The message is that feeling in control of some portion of our experience, whether nursing home resident or an elderly individual living in the community, is good for our physical and mental health. The amount of governance we have over the events in our lives, changes dramatically during the lifespan.

How then do we continue to have control in our lives as we age? One major way is to maintain a workable balance between independence and dependence. As we grow older we need to be wary of prematurely giving up governance of segments of our lives that we can still do successfully. This can happen because those who are concerned for the older person (i.e.: professionals, mature children, relatives, friends, etc.) may encourage dependency out of good intentions by carrying out the various activities of living for the older person that might still be managed, but at a slower pace.

A classic study of learned dependence was discovered with nursing home staff, which can also be applied to aged community dwellers, is that of staff regularly “encouraging” elderly residents to be dependent upon them for their personal hygiene. This is not surprising because staff/caregivers want to perform these duties as quickly as possible based on the number of residents assigned to be care for.

The trick then for the loved one and/or caregiver concerned with the elderly person is to recognize that even the most enfeebled needs some domain over which they have control.

Perhaps the sense of independence comes from having their opinions taken seriously. Having one’s views respected can do wonders for the continued mental vigor of that individual. With this positive attitude going forward, remarkable gains in the quality of that older person’s life ensures continued relevance.

As a final note, there also has to be a balance between being willing to accept or request help with activities that are no longer physically feasible or safe, and activities that are still doable.

A Quotable Quote: “Waste not fresh tears over old griefs.”

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