Teaching Awareness Through Movement lessons to Seniors
I didn’t start my Feldenkrais® practice twenty years ago intending to specialize in working with seniors, but various shifts in my circumstances have led me to do just that. I am truly grateful, since my ability to teach, adapt, and create effective Feldenkrais lessons has grown as a result of attending to the needs and challenges of my senior students.
I currently teach eight Awareness Through Movement® classes weekly, five of which are at senior centers in Fairfield County, CT. I also rent a studio/office space where I teach public classes and give private lessons. Three of my senior center classes are “chair only,” one class is currently transitioning, as students learn how to safely get down on the floor and back up again, and one class comprises mostly floor lessons.
One of the first things to know about seniors as a group is that the only thing they necessarily have in common is that they are over the age of 65…or 55…or 72...depending on whose definition of “senior” we are using. And although seniors are often referred to as a group, there is within this group the largest possible variation in life experience, character, ability, interests, education, health, and self-image.
Maryanne, age 75, married, is an attractive, personable redhead who dresses with great flair, takes yoga, tai chi, and Pilates classes, and throws themed dinner parties for her family once a month. She is a breast cancer survivor, and recently recovered from an unexplained bout of pneumonia that almost killed her. She is learning how to relax her abdominal muscles (occasionally) and feels taller after every lesson.
Nicki, age 85, widowed, is a small tanned woman who worries about her balance and her posture, has some trouble with lower back pain, and spends every summer in Italy visiting her daughter. Her husband was a very well known painter. She is learning how to move her ribs, shoulders, and upper back, and feels more confident about traveling and walking.
Don, age 70, married, is a short, muscular man who has great difficulty standing up straight; his back and hip joints are very stiff. He is an intrepid outdoorsman, hunter, bird watcher and traveler, recently back from a two-week hiking holiday with his wife in Scotland. Don is beginning to move his hips and lower back, loves foot lessons, and can now look up at the sky without pain.
Janet, age 67, single, is blonde, morbidly obese, shy, and loves making jewelry and working in her garden. She can now get down on the ground and back up again for the first time in many years.
Shirley, age 91, single, is a petite, trim woman who takes ballet lessons and credits Feldenkrais classes for “saving her life.” Her back and neck no longer hurt, and she can move and turn with ease.
There are many surprises (and inspirations) in store for practitioners who wish to focus on working with seniors.
SOME TIPS FOR WORKING WITH SENIORS
Start transposing your favorite floor lessons into chair lessons or standing lessons - it’s one of the fastest ways to learn what a lesson might be about, and it will challenge your creativity.
Don’t hesitate to repeat effective lessons, or parts of lessons, many times - your students will appreciate it.
Learn which students have joint replacements, spinal fusions, arthritis, etc., and who might be taking particularly strong medication. You will be astonished at what people may not tell you if you don’t ask.
Find out what issues are particularly important to each class (sometimes this really helps, and sometimes not - but it’s worth asking!)
When a new student joins the class, have everyone introduce themselves by name and say why she/he is taking the class. “Balance,” “standing up straight,” “it just makes me feel better,” and “it got rid of my (back/shoulder/knee/ankle) pain” are all common responses, and help to underscore the potential benefits of class.
Exercise is an issue for some seniors, so be sure to clarify that this is not a primary goal of Awareness Through Movement lessons. I encourage my students to participate in other classes and activities to build strength and stamina, especially if their doctor is recommending more exercise.
Keep reminding students to stop if something is painful; sixty year old habits are much harder to change than twelve year old habits. You might even have to challenge someone to change their ideas!
Feel free to spend some class time on individual problems - seniors are often interested in seeing how others are doing, and what some potential solutions might be.
Laugh a lot - if you aren’t naturally light hearted, learn some jokes and tell them. Encourage your students to “do it badly” or “just wiggle” every once in a while.
Leave time for stories about experiences: both yours and theirs. In this way you will start to know them so you can…
…connect their improved movement with their daily activities and individual interests: driving, bird watching, sailing, dancing, walking, carrying groceries, gardening, and getting out of the bathtub or off the toilet. (Yes, I do talk about getting up off the toilet seat!)
Use gentle touch (with permission) to help individual students understand directions, or focus awareness on a particular body part. Seniors often don’t get touched in a caring and gentle way and are very appreciative of the attention.
As I read through what I have just written, it seems to me that many of these suggestions apply to teaching any Awareness Through Movement class - and some are expressive of my own teaching style - but that they are perhaps even more important for seniors. We live in a society that does not often view our senior citizens as having any great value. At 66, I am now a senior myself. Respecting and believing in our ability to learn and grow affords us the dignity and self-confidence we all deserve; a teacher who offers us that respect for our ability to learn can truly change lives.
Consider joining Cathy in Seatte, WA on August 26 for her workshop at the Feldenkrais Conference, "Journey to the Floor.....and Back Again!"
For 19 years, a large part of Cathy Paine’s Feldenkrais® work has been with seniors. She currently teaches weekly Awareness Through Movement® classes at three senior centers and is developing a “Journey To The Floor” ATM® program. She has seen firsthand how re-acquiring and improving access to the floor promotes joy, confidence, and health.
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5/21/2017 8:37:15 AM
Lovely article. I enjoyed reading it.
5/19/2017 10:51:56 AM
Cathy, I always love to hear what you're doing. I think it's splendid you are focusing on seniors. That particular demographic is growing exponentially and and as Feldies we have many of the tools that they need to be able to enjoy movement in all forms. Thank you for your contribution to this work.