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”?
What motivates frail older adults?
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.
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).
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.
Brain 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.
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?
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?
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.
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!