Learned Helplessness – Tammy Point NAAP Regional Director
Is there really such a thing? No one really wants to be helpless, do they?
Learned Helplessness is described as the behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. Learned Helplessness was accidently coined by Professor Seligman and Professor Maier in the 1960’s. They were doing experiments with Dogs and electrical shocks. The dogs were taught how to stop the shocks or how to avoid them but chose not to. It was as if they were unable to understand they could bypass the electric shocks. Professor Seligman and Maier believed if animals were affected this way that humans may also be affected in the same way. Learned helplessness started to be applied to humans in the 1970’s. Some of the causes that have been sighted are trauma, domestic violence, childhood neglect and/or no control in situations.
But what does this have to do with our Residents? Glad you asked. You don’t need to look to far to see that if someone is in a facility, they have had either a traumatic even or significant loss or losses. Most of our residents have lost their health, spouse or significant supportive system, and their independence. Independence, in most cases, is associated with driving. They come to facilities with a sense they no longer have control over their situation. Once they are admitted to a facility, the staff “helps” them by giving them their medicine, fixing their meals, doing their laundry, taking them to meals at the set mealtime for the facility as well as rise and retire times according to staff availability. Staff has only a small amount of time to give to each resident and if they take too long getting dressed or going through their routine staff just completes the tasks for them. This doesn’t mean to say it is done intentionally, oftentimes staff really believe they are helping them.
There is another term that is also used called “the passive resignation”. This is produced by repeated exposure to negative events that are perceived to be unavoidable. We can’t change the course of negative events; failure is then inevitable and insurmountable. If your outlook seems helpless, it could explain the depression that individuals feel once they are admitted. If residents feel that they have no choice, then they stop making their desires known. One example would be someone who has taken care of flowers all their life. The facility has flowers planted all over the grounds. Certain kinds need deadheaded (the dying flowers removed so new ones can grow), but the Resident gets in trouble for sitting on the ground to take care of them or is told that’s not their job, we pay someone to do that, or they aren’t doing it right.
It is one thing to have learned helplessness explained, but how do we know it is happening? Are we really teaching our residents to be helpless? This became very clear to me a few months ago. I had to have major surgery that involved my chest muscles. I read all the information before the surgery and prepared for the worst-case scenario. What I was unable to prepare myself for was the amount of unsolicited help everyone wanted to give me. “Oh don’t get up by yourself, don’t try and carry that, don’t get that out of the cabinet, I’ll get it for you.” “ Oh don’t try and get dressed yourself I will do that for you.” Don’t carry that laundry to the laundry room, I’ll get it later, don’t do those dishes you will hurt yourself”. After about 3 days of this, I said please let me try, I don’t want to be helpless. Then there was the shower, I had to have my neighbor give me a shower and wash my hair. She thankfully is in healthcare and said, “You tell me when you need me to do something, otherwise I’m gong to stand here and make sure you are safe”. THANK YOU! Everyone thought they were doing me a favor by helping me. They weren’t really helping me but making me more helpless. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Needless to say, this was very eye-opening to me. Am I making my clients helpless by offering too much help?
There is a way to reverse or change how helpless people feel. Specialist have stated that if we can determine what led to the feeling of having no control, then there is that opportunity to work at giving them some control back. Professor Seligman coined the term “Learned Hopefulness” – He believed that if we can provide opportunities to learn skills and/or promote a sense of control it will help to overcome learned helplessness.
What does that mean for Activity Professionals? When new residents come into the facility, we use our activity assessment to learn who they are. We take what we have learned from their assessment and implement it into our calendars or into opportunities to volunteer in the facility. Activities are the ones who can help give control back to the residents. It may take some time, but the more opportunities they have to make choices or to help around the facility the more control they may feel they have.
Two weeks after my surgery I started therapy. It was the worst feeling ever. I had very little range of motion and very little strength. I was set up for five weeks of therapy to start with and that there would probably be more. I had already determined in my head that five would be more than plenty and hopefully I would not need all five weeks. The exercises were tough. It took me 40 minutes to do exercises that should have taken 15 minutes or less. However, the more I did them, the more I could do. I had them down to 20 minutes by my next visit. If we want to combat learned helplessness, we have to be willing to let those we take care of struggle a little at first. Maybe even give them the opportunity to ask for help instead of just completing the task for them. It is amazing what someone can do if given the opportunity.