Break the Cycle of Learned Helplessness – It’s not rocket science

The learned helplessness theory was first proposed as a model to explain depression in humans. Psychologist Martin Seligman initiated the research in 1967 with three groups of dogs. When group 3 pushed the lever and it did nothing to stop a shock or its intensity, they simply laid down passively and whined through it. The dogs did not try to escape because they expected that nothing would stop the shock … they had learned helplessness. While proponents of animal rights would certainly come against such experimentation today, it provided timeless insight.


If my historical lesson in psychology made you cringe, it exercised your muscle of compassion … and that is a good thing. Learned helplessness can be a factor in a wide range of social situations. The most prominent one today can be seen among the elderly. Elderly patients can be particularly susceptible to helplessness, as they are likely to have experienced multiple losses and stresses.  Just take this morning’s phone call, for example. My father called me at 7:45 a.m. with, “I hate to bother you. Are you awake? I called for help to the bathroom 30 minutes ago and no one has come.” With tears in my eyes I replied, “Do you want me to call over there, or do you want to push the button again while I’m on the phone with you?” Then, mere moments later … “they’re here now; I’m okay.”


My father has made the rounds since arriving to our neighborhood five years ago: independent living to hospital to rehabilitation to nursing home to assisted living to hospital to rehabilitation … and probably back to nursing home. I jokingly tell him, “You’ve made nearly as many moves as my military children. I’m going to call you my elder brat.”


My husband and I weathered the challenges of raising military brats. I wrote a series: the stressors of being the new kid on the block, changing schools multiple times over, navigating gains and losses, learning to cope, and more. For 28 years of our military service, we rallied against learned helplessness. We encouraged them to use their voice, gave them age-appropriate choices, and reminded them (often) of their strength and abilities — all the while believing they could become resilient, and thereby better equipped for life’s inevitable challenges.


What if we saw our nation’s elderly in a similar capable light?


What if rather than seeing them as frail (often helpless) seniors, we saw them as capable of using their own voice, able to help with decisions? What if we frequently reminded them of their strength and abilities? As a result we would have more contributing senior partners. If we could just be silent long enough to listen … same letters in both words, yet different approach. In turn, we would have less exhausted caregivers (family and professional ones).


My father is frail. On March 12th he lost the love of his life after 64 years. I wrote about the joy and miracles we found, even as Alzheimer’s took her from us. My dad’s heart is surely even more frail than his body, and that makes this rehabilitation even more crucial. Still, he is mindfully quite sharp. Dr Jodi Teitelman, Assistant Professor of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, published a study showing that “elderly patients may be particularly susceptible to helplessness, as they are likely to have experienced multiple losses and stresses.” Helplessness leads to deficits in motivation, as well as cognition, affect, and sometimes, self-esteem. Interventions [should] provide choices, provide success-experiences, increased environmental predictability, eliminate ageist stereotypes and modify unrealistic treatment expectations, Dr Teitelman noted.


Dr. Teitelman’s thinking is closely aligned with the framework of an Eden at Home course, which I co-taught earlier this year at Northwest Florida State College. In working together and empowering care partner teams, we can help ensure the independence, dignity, and continued growth of elders – thereby eliminating learned helplessness, as well as loneliness and boredom. It can be as simple as breaking the task of wheelchair-ambulating down a hallway into manageable segments; take a break, let them catch their breath, and then proceed, one wheel-roll at a time. Feeling rushed feeds into one’s helplessness, in not being able to “measure up” to expectations.


According to the Eden at Home approach, “we each play a crucial role in shifting the culture of care and societal perspectives on aging” and we are ultimately shaping what will be waiting for us, if we are so fortunate to wear those elder shoes.  I sure don’t want to feel like a helpless dog being shocked, ready to lie down and simply give up. Waiting 30 minutes for bathroom assistance is too long. I am a team player in my father’s care, so I will be inquiring about that, and much more in the days to come. On a positive note, my dad called back to say, “just want to let you know, they helped me some and I brushed my teeth myself, and now I’m at Bingo.” Thankfully, therapy will work to improve dexterity and flexibility of his arthritic and neuropathic riddled body.


On a different note, this week I contributed an inspirational article to the Crisis Prevention Institute to help families honor moms going through dementia. Please go HERE to read and share  “5 Memory Care Tips for Mother’s Day”.

2 thoughts on “Break the Cycle of Learned Helplessness – It’s not rocket science”

  1. I love this article. I don’t know where I was at the time of your Mom’s passing, but I didn’t know til this article. I’m so sorry for your loss. I know He has His arms around her and you and your family. May God bless!

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