How Do You Teach Those With No Capacity to Learn?

That was the question I was struggling with as I confronted my new workshop group earlier this afternoon, examining faces which ranged from cherubic to haggard and which displayed expressions anywhere on the spectrum between blank and expectant.

Last week I was contacted by Arts Horizons, part of the consortium of NJ based arts organizations for which I am rostered by the NJ State Council for the Arts. They asked me if I would be willing to lead a Creative Writing workshop in an assisted living facility for seniors with memory loss, and not without trepidation, I agreed. I love my WWAC workshop group, and probably enjoy myself as much as my students in that class, but 8 hours of teaching a month at $45 per hour doesn’t pay that many bills. Arts One were offering $100 for a monthly 1 hour workshop, although I suspected the money would be much harder earned.

My supposition turned out to be correct–this was hands on, high participation ‘teaching’, and ‘teaching’ probably is the wrong word. I encouraged them to write down some thoughts about a happy time in their past, prompting them to note which season it occurred in, what time of day, who they were with, and what sights, sounds and other sensations they could recall. Then I went round and turned these recollections into poems for them–something I’d never do when teaching children.

But the point of these workshops is not to encourage late-blooming poets, but to form part of an environment developed in an effort to treat, or at least slow, the progress of Alzheimer’s. Care One, the facility in question, aims not simply to look after the residents, but to give them the best quality of life available to them. Daily physical and mental stimulation is a big part of the package.

After the workshop was over I got a tour of the facility–it is certainly not my grandfather’s old folks home! Residents are encouraged to be as autonomous as possible, making their own beds and doing their own laundry, with aides available to help, of course. They are allowed to furnish their own rooms and practice crafts by themselves–“We tell relatives there’s a risk-benefit thing going on,” said Program Director Danielle Rago, “Here we err on the side of allowing risk in order to improve life quality.”

Television is actively discouraged. Instead a full daily program of activities is written up on a board within each “neighborhood”–one of four communities of 17 seniors with about the same level of memory impairment. Activities range from yoga and baking to gardening. A therapy dog is a daily visitor.

So now I’m a part of it. I’m so fortunate that my teaching has brought me into contact with yet another remarkable institution doing something I believe in. And the dignity of these people is humbling.

“Will they remember me, when I come back next month?” I asked Danielle.

“Maybe not next month,” she said, “and they probably won’t ever remember your name, but as time goes on they will come to associate positive feelings with seeing you. They loved it today, I could tell. It was very stimulating for them.”

And that, readers, is what every teacher wants to hear.


  1. Anna M Evans

    That’s a wonderful article, Sarah. Thank you for posting the link. It gives me some ideas for how to continue my own work with these special seniors.

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