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Teaching Older Adults to Knit and Crochet

If you teach knitting or crochet, you may be faced with a variety of student ages and abilities. You have to be able to adapt “on the fly” to whoever shows up to class. Although every student is an individual, the very young and the very old may need your particular attention. You need to be ready to adapt your teaching style to meet the needs of your students where they are.

Recently I had a conversation with Lois Arsenault, an elder-care expert with a lot of experience in teaching frail older adults, the “old, old”. She graciously agreed to share her tips for teaching knitting and crocheting  to this particular  population. However, the excellent advice she offers can apply to any fiber arts teaching.

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What do we mean by “older adults”?

Hands-elderly womanThe term “older adults” is actually subjective. Some 80- and 90-year olds are quite robust. I will answer based upon my experience with what is termed “frail older adults.” That term is actually more related to mental and physical health than to age.  It can be as young as from age 70 and up.

What motivates frail older adults?

Never Stop LearningThat too is very individualized. Some people remain lifelong learners and require the mental stimulation of new learning experiences throughout their lifetimes. Others enjoy the ability to renew a craft or skill they enjoyed in their younger years. Some others are very focused on their frailty. They use most of their energy just doing the activities they need to do to make it through the day. This segment of the population really enjoys being entertained and/or reminiscing.
With  my frail older adult clients, I have to learn a little about them. If their motivation is located within themselves, we are lucky. If their motivation is externally generated, we must figure out, on an individual basis, what turns them on. This may be gifts for family, gifts for self, learning or regaining skills, or the fellowship with people doing the same activity.

What special needs does this population have? What do teachers need to pay special attention to?

Muscle memory is a beautiful thing. It can remain long after the cognitive part of the brain has begun to deteriorate.

Brightech Magnifier Lamp

Brightech Magnifier Lamp

 Eyesight can be a challenge. The magnifying glasses that hang around the neck or rest on a table with a frame can be helpful (or distracting).

Kollage square knitting needles

Kollage Square ergonomic knitting needles

Small motor skills may also deteriorate. One of my senior clients used to create fine doilies. I now have her working with bulky yarn and a 7 mm hook.

Eye-hand coordination can be a barrier as well. This same woman  often needs me to help her yarn over or insert the hook into the correct location. She knows what to do but can’t make her hands do it.

Elderly woman with puzzle pieces overlayBrain changing diseases/conditions such as memory loss will make it difficult for individuals to learn new information. If you are working to call up former skills, you will have to be patient to determine what the person can do. You must be prepared for that person to need much reinforcement.

round knitting loom

Round knitting looms and pompom makers

For individuals with brain changing diseases, frustration is our enemy. Teachers must find ways in our language and the projects that we choose to help them feel successful. That may mean knitting looms, finger crochet, weaving, or simply helping to wind and sort yarns. If they were perfectionists in their past, they may be aware of the imperfections in their work.

How can teachers take advantage of the student’s existing skills and life experiences to enhance their teaching?

Grandma hand, baby feetIf teachers know something about their students, they can use it. Were they family oriented? Then help them make gifts for family, especially focus on the fact that it will always be a great memory for the family to cherish. Were they work oriented (professional or volunteer)? Then help them make gifts for the local shelter, hospital, church, etc. Are they self oriented? Then help them make a gift for themselves.
Teachers should remember if the student has crocheted or knitted previously, they have somewhere in muscle memory the holding of their work and the types of projects they worked on. As much as possible, adapt to the types of projects and let them hold the yarn their way. Take my example of the woman who made doilies: now we are working in granny squares with bulky yarn.

Please elaborate on the need to adjust expectations for certain students.

For special needs students, especially frail older adults, I think we need to remove expectations—as we traditionally define them to mean progress and new learning—from the equation. I think our goals should be enjoyment on the part of the student with process being more important than product. I reiterate the need for as close to as possible a guaranteed feeling of success on the part of the student. That being said, “success” is likely to be different for each student. Can they tell you what they expect to gain, what they expect to be able to accomplish? If so, run with it.

Can you give some specific examples of physical adaptations and teaching-style adaptations that teachers may want to try?

Furls ergonomic crochet hook

Furls ergonomic crochet hook

Physical adaptations may include commercially made ergonomic hooks, or a different technique. Who knows, the Tunisian simple stitch may just be easier than traditional crochet. Maybe crocheting around a ring to make wreaths or around a wire or plastic coat hanger would be easier than traditional foundation chains or even the chainless foundation stitches.

Repetition or boredom with the same project may not be an issue with this population.  I once  worked with an individual who, once she learned the pattern, must have made 20 or 30 Christmas wreaths crocheted around rings.

Teaching styles require patience. Body language is as important as what we say and the tone in which we say it. For someone with cognitive changes, each day can be different and you can measure success by their enjoyment of the activity. Always be aware of the energy you are sending out. Individuals with brain changing diseases may be memory and discernment impaired but their responses are very likely to be what they “feel” rather than what they think, even if they cannot articulate either.

If someone is hard of hearing: speak into the strongest side if there is one. Raise the volume somewhat and lower the tone (not volume but tone) as bass tones are more easily heard than a more shrill voice. Speak facing the person rather than from behind where they cannot see you. Eliminate background noise or other distractions; write it down if necessary. Make certain by verifying that they have heard correctly.

What other words of wisdom do you have for us?

Working with frail older adults can be a very fulfilling experience, and it is not for everyone. One must be able to “be in the moment” and in the “immediate reality” of the individual with whom they are working. Sometimes it comes down to conversation and reminiscence. Other times, it may mean helping the person catch the yarn with the hook on a yarn over action. You may have to persistently coach step-by-step through each stitch which can be painfully slow,  but is so rewarding when the student executes a row with your assistance.

Frail older adults have a lot to offer us even if their minds aren’t working as well as they used to. Always speak to them as adults, get to know who they are, validate their worth, never be condescending, never use terms of endearment (“dear”, “honey”, “sweetie”) unless they are culturally appropriate to the student. They are adults who have a brain changing illness. Their memories may be slower or pretty much non-functional, but “who they are” at their center is still there and can be reached in some fashion in many cases.

About Lois

Lois Arsenault is a veteran eldercare professional of more than 30 years. Much of her experience is in the field of Therapeutic Recreation. Her last 11 years were primarily spent in management roles such as executive director of an assisted living community and an adult day center. Her credentials include a BS in human services  and an M.Ed. in psychological studies  with a focus in dementia and the psychology of aging.

Thanks so much to Lois for sharing her expertise!



4 thoughts on “Teaching Older Adults to Knit and Crochet”

  1. Edie,

    Thank you for a fabulous article! I have been teaching knitting since you were part of my certification team back in 2012 and 13. Many of my clients are in this demographic and I find myself doing more therapy than knitting with them. But what a joy! Thank you for all you do for the needle arts!
    – Kathy

  2. You’re welcome! When I first talked to Lois, I was so impressed with her experience, I wanted to share it with others.

  3. Thank you, Edie, for the article about teaching Seniors.
    I have been teaching a group of Seniors of many ages, at our S.Center for more than 5 years. I started with 5 Ladies, and now I have more than 30. Every day, I have new women joining us.
    I teach Crochet, Knitting, and Loom, depending on what they want, and are able to do.
    Our group name is Menifee Yarn Crew, and we are always participating in the events of our City, offering our hand made articles. We also have been doing many charities to different groups of people in need.
    I think belonging to our group, gives the Seniors, not only learning or refreshing their skills, but also a feeling of togetherness.

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