Difficulties and Rewards of Teaching Seniors
There is absolutely no truth to the saying
"You can't teach an old dog new tricks"
If they want to, healthy seniors can continue to learn effectively into their 80s and 90s and beyond.
Even as sight, hearing and health declines, the senior student can still learn well with a few modifications to the classroom environment and teaching style.
It's incredibly rewarding to see my elderly students work through their believed limitations - age, health, and mobility, and learn new skills that are immediately useful to them.
Lifelong learning - important at any age
Lifelong learning is important for keeping the mind and memory working as we age. Ongoing education and learning activities can compensate for age-related degenerative brain diseases like Alzeihmer's, encourage seniors to develop and maintain social connections, improve their self-confidence and quality of life, and prevent depression due to social isolation. [2, 3, 4, 5]
Computer literacy for seniors
My oldest computer student was 92. With his arthritic hands he had trouble using the mouse, and hearing instructions was difficult as he was quite deaf. Although he had never touched a computer, when he decided to become computer literate, he joined my small class for seniors.
It took him a few days of classes to become comfortable with the mouse, keyboard, operating system and various programs, and then he started to actively write his memoirs and stay in contact with family who had moved overseas.
Seniors are embracing lifelong learning and seeking out new challenges to keep their brains active and healthy.
Some enroll in university degrees that they always wanted to do, but didn't have time for due to the demands of their jobs and families. Some join community courses to learn about current technology (Learning 2.0).
Others join the University of the Third Age (U3A), which has groups around the world, and attend various classes and lectures, from photography and plant propagation, to web design, genealogy research and foreign languages.
Although the rewards of teaching seniors are great, there are some challenges in a classroom of elderly students.
Challenges when teaching the elderly
Some of the difficulties in teaching seniors come from physical limitations and a lower endurance than younger students. Others are caused by changes in the brain due to age.
Most of the difficulties can be avoided or lessened by modifying the classroom or teaching methods.
Comfort for senior students
- Hard plastic or wooden chairs are most common in community and adult-education classrooms, and they are uncomfortable to sit on for long periods, even for the younger students.
Perhaps encourage students to bring their own pillows, if more comfortable seating can't be arranged.
- Heating and cooling may need to be adjusted for your class. I know my classes need it much warmer than I find comfortable, especially in winter!
- A short class length, regular breaks, and an occasional tea/coffee and cookies/cake at the end of a class, prevent fatigue and allow time for friendships between the students to form.
In addition to preventing tiredness, these bonds formed between students and teachers makes activities during the lessons more fun and engaging.
- Minimizing distractions is important for any classroom, but more so for senior classes where the available attention (and endurance) is more limited.
From my experience - avoid scheduling classes when you know there'll be a noisy aerobics class right above you - it's terribly distracting when trying to run an English conversation class for seniors!
- A comfortable workspace prevents fatigue and encourages learning.
Look for tools that may help your senior students - trackballs or track-pads instead of mice are easier to control with arthritic or shaking hands, thick pens or paint brushes are easier to hold.
Memory and retention - a slower pace for seniors
Older brains can be slower to learn and remember new information, so tasks need to be step-by-step and oft repeated. Patience is definitely needed in the senior classroom - the students need to be encouraged to be patient with themselves and each other, and the teacher should not be frustrated by repetition of instructions or tasks.
Smaller and quieter groups often work better than tasks that involve the entire classroom. Adults are often more afraid of 'making fools of themselves' than children, and smaller groups encourage participation.
Finding textbooks for seniors
Most language textbooks are aimed at younger students. Seniors don't want to do activities about applying for jobs, or using English around their campus.
Textbooks used in senior classes need to be a 'loose' guide for the teacher.
Modify the exercises to suit the interests of your elderly students.
Seniors CAN learn a new language
I now teach English as a foreign language to classes of mostly retired seniors. Now that the retirees have some time and savings to spend on overseas travel, learning English has become a priority.
The adult brain learns languages just as easily (and more thoroughly) than children. They can reach a working level of proficiency much quicker than children can, as they draw on their existing language knowledge.
Personally, teaching motivated, older students a foreign language is so much easier, and more rewarding, than a classroom of young, unmotivated school students.
Learning styles of seniors
Today's classrooms are quite chaotic, teachers create activities to cater to various learning styles, jumping quickly from one activity to the next to avoid boredom.
Too much variety in tasks can cause confusion and over-stimulation in learners of all ages, let alone the elderly.
I have found that longer discussion type activities are better than jumping between different types of exercises (reading, audio, video, role-plays, games, etc.) and competitive games.
Seniors have a lot of experiences, so travel conversations are often lively and detailed, as are topics like family, school and work experiences, and even books read.
Activities that link to knowledge in long-term memory have been shown to work better for senior students than those that require only the short term memory (rote learning, oral drills).
Many elderly students will not ask questions when they are lost, you may need to look for clues that they don't understand something. It is best to start with the basics, and don't assume prior knowledge. Ask them lots of questions to check understanding, and encourage the students to ask questions too!
Resistance to technology
About half of my English students are reluctant to discuss or learn about recent technology - they believe that it's not important and too hard to learn.
The other half of my students actively want to learn about technology, mostly so they can keep up with their grandkids and maintain contact with distant relatives.
Especially in classes that use technology or tools that students may be fearful of, small classes are best. The extra teacher-student time is more supportive. More advanced students can also be encouraged to support the less experienced students.
Catering for disabilities in the classroom
Hearing: Some seniors have trouble hearing, so discussions need to be slow, very clear and loud, with few interruptions. Try to face these students when you want to be heard.
Sight: Many older students have trouble swapping between writing notes/reading the textbook and looking at the board at the front of the room.
- If your students are working on computers, show them how to best adjust their screens and chairs.
- Don't plan too many activities that require your elderly students to switch from distance viewing to close-up.
Mobility: Difficulties in movement are not just limited to those who need walking aids (canes, walking frames, wheelchairs), although this can change the dynamics of a classroom.
- Make sure the room is accessible, and class exercises don't stretch the students past their physical comfort levels.
- Be aware that a lack of flexibility and joint pain can cause problems with fine motor control - using a mouse, painting, writing, using a camera, etc. Take such tasks slowly, and offer lots of encouragement.
- Look for modifications that can help, such a keyboard shortcuts, a tripod for camera stability, a large-barreled pen or thick-handled brush.
Teaching seniors has many rewards
Wisdom - Seniors have a lifetime of experience and wisdom to share. I have learned so much more from my classes of older students than from teaching school-age classes!
Motivated students - Senior students are generally more motivated to learn than younger students, although they can complain just as much about getting homework! They show more excitement when they have mastered even simple tasks. I'm much happier teaching students who want to learn!
Gratitude - My students often thank me profusely, at the end of the courses, when they return from trips, when they find they can read in English more quickly, or swap photos by email with their distant family.
The gratitude shown by my elderly students is much more than that displayed by my younger students, and is very heart-warming.
Social connections - Being part of a classroom, or even participating in one-on-one tutoring, helps seniors feel they are part of a community.
These social connections help prevent or reduce feelings of isolation, an increasing problem in today's society due to families moving further apart and working longer hours.
Friendships from the classroom can help provide support and distraction in times of loss and sadness.
Improved health - Keeping the mind and body active, avoiding isolation and depression by maintaining social connections help to maintain good health as you age.
Thriving as we age
How will you keep your brain active when you retire?
- Optimizing Learning in the Elderly: A Model, S.K. Ostwald and H.Y. Williams, Lifelong Learning 9 1985, 10-13:27
- Patterns of cognitive performance in healthy ageing in Northern Portugal: a cross-sectional analysis, A.C. Paulo, et.al., Public Library of Science one, September 2011, 6(9):e24553
- The relationship between social integration and depression in non-demented primary care patients aged 75 years and older, M. Schwarzbach, et.al., Journal of Affective Disorders, August 2012
- Education and decline in cognitive performance: compensatory but not protective, H. Christensen, et.al., March 1997, 12(3):323-30
- Successful aging of the healthy brain, Marian C. Diamond, Presented at the Conference of the American Society on Aging and The National Council on the Aging March 10, 2001
- Late Life Leisure Activities and Risk of Cognitive Decline, H.X. Wang, et.al., The Journals of Gerontology, Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, August 2012
- The older language learner, M. Schleppegrell, ERIC Higher Education Digest, 1987
What would you learn?
If you could study anything at university or learn some new skills when you retire, what would you choose to do?
Let us know in the comments below!