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  • Gail MLT

The power of small acts

An early field study of the effect of choice and responsibility revealed the importance of not doing for older adults what they may still (safely) do for themselves.

“[The study findings] suggests that some of the negative consequences of aging may be retarded, reversed, or possibility prevented by returning to the aged the right to make decisions and a feeling of competence." ~ Ellen J.Langer and Judith Rodin, 1976

Personal control and the simple act of deciding for yourself

Is it possible to impose or hasten dependency upon an older adult? By assuming or taking on some of the mundane tasks of daily life, can we unintentionally strip older people of a defining marker of adulthood: that is, a sense of personal control exercised through choice and responsibility?

In a 1976 field study of older adults, researchers Ellen J. Langer and Judith Rodin conducted an experiment in the "virtually decision-free environment" of a Connecticut nursing home. Using two floors of the facility for their experiment - selected for the similarity of the residents - Langer & Rodin conducted the following experiment: residents of both floors were assembled in their separate lounges to hear an announcement by the facility's popular administrator. Each floor heard a different announcement:

  • One floor was assembled and heard a responsibility-induced announcement that emphasized decision making: "I was surprised to learn that...many of you don't realize the influence you have over your own lives here. Take a minute to think about the decisions you can and should be making...". At the conclusion of the announcement, a box of small plants was passed around and residents were (1) offered the opportunity to take a plant or not; and (2) were also told they would be responsible for caring for the plant.

  • The second floor was assembled and heard an announcement that emphasized all that the staff do for them: "I was surprised to learn that...many of you don't realize all you're allowed to do here. Take a minute to think of all the options that we've provided for you in order for your life to be fuller and more interesting...". At the conclusion of the announcement, (1) a nurse gave each resident a small plant and (2) the residents were told the nurses would water and care for the plants.

Three weeks following this experiment, residents of the responsibility-induced floor reported "significantly greater increases in happiness" and were "significantly more active" than residents of the comparison floor. Moreover, a followup study 18 months later by Langer & Rodin suggested sustained benefits supported by health and mortality data.

Langer & Rodin's seminal research is still taught today in graduate gerontology programs.

For older adults today, one lesson is clear: There is power in small acts. Consider carefully before surrendering even the smallest of tasks to someone else.

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