It’s not news that America is getting older. According to the Administration on Aging, the population of Americans in the 60+ age bracket grew almost 25% between 2000 and 2010, and is projected to grow an additional 30% by 2020. This trend in aging has noticeably impacted the affordable housing industry as more and more senior communities are being developed to meet this growing community of elderly. At HCA, we have easily doubled the amount of senior programming that we provided just five years ago. In fact, our annual scholarship program, which received applications exclusively from young adults when it was launched back in 2006, received almost 3 times as many submissions from senior residents than younger residents in 2013.
These numbers unequivocally call for a continued increase in senior programming by affordable housing nonprofits like HCA. Yet, if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, an increase in class time alone insufficiently addresses this elderly movement. We also need to change how we’re teaching. An elementary school teacher employs different methods and modalities to teach high school students; our program instructors must similarly adjust their styles to reach senior audiences.
1. Use common sense(s)
Take a moment to reminisce about your favorite — and not so favorite — teachers growing up. Do you remember your eyelids getting heavier through that marathon of PowerPoint slides in freshman biology? Do you remember how excited you got about your English final, where you had the choice to write, videotape or give a live performance of a modern interpretation of Hamlet’s fight scene with props, costumes, soundtracks and the works? Chances are that varied, sensory-motivated lessons and assignments go hand in hand with your fondest academic experiences of yore. Most other roads simply led to boredom.
30+ years later, this is still the truth. Dull experiences can dull any mind, age aside. Elderly students are as susceptible to boredom — if not more so — than their younger counterparts. For program instructors, this is your cue to ramp up the sensory appeal and spread it as much as possible from the fingers to the nose to the ears and the eyes — and the mouth, if you teach cooking or have the good fortune of a refreshments budget — so that everyone’s strengths are targeted.
2. Bump it up
I’ve said it before (like in this article) and I’ll say it again: strong promotion is a necessary prerequisite to successful programming. If residents don’t know about your awesome new Tuesday ESL class, they probably won’t show up it. When it comes to seniors, we like to add one more caveat to the golden rule: if residents can’t read your promotion, they are also likely to be no-shows.
No, we’re not talking about a language barrier or fuzzy vision. We’re talking about that beautiful 4×6” postcard you made that advertises your much-anticipated program in 10 pt cursive font. Know your audience: make sure that any program promotion utilizes sizable, legible font that can be read by the people you are targeting.
3. Stay within reach
This gem of wisdom came up just this past fall during a brainstorm session for upcoming mosaic projects. After completing our last mosaic project at Arbor Court, a beautiful Celtic knot design, we had visions of going even bigger than its modest 3’ diameter. Why not, right? Well, as our talented Art + Magazine Director Nuri Amanatullah pointed out, 3’ was about the biggest we could go before the mosaic became too deep for a wheelchair-bound senior’s reach. There are creative ways to troubleshoot circumstances such as this. We could have discussed ways to assemble the mosaic in smaller pieces. We could have chosen a rectangular shape instead of a circular one. Regardless, this exchange illustrates an important guideline for senior programs: make sure you, your class supplies and any other necessary learning tools are within comfortable physical reach of your senior participants. If you are starting a community garden, make sure the beds are raised so seniors can tend to their flower and edibles without excessive bending. If you are organizing a mural project, make sure the design is low enough for seniors to paint without the use of ladders, stools or other risky aids.
What suggestions do you have for catering to seniors in your community programs?