Catered classes: 3 tips for teaching seniors

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?

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