7.1: Setting the Stage
In chapter 6, we stressed the importance of establishing trust through the instructional design of the program. This section examines how ensuring physical and programmatic accessibility and setting group expectations contribute to creating an environment of trust in which participants can learn and succeed.
Ensuring Physical and Programmatic Accessibility
Accessibility means that everyone, regardless of age or ability, is included in all physical structures, programs, and means of communication (for example, Web sites, e-mail, telephone). The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability in employment, state, and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
Whether older adults have disabilities or not, they benefit from accessibility features and customer service practices in stores, museums, performing arts venues, restaurants, and printed publications. Older adults are most likely to use accessible features when they are integrated into the overall design (universal design) because they are reluctant to request special consideration or fear ageism.
For arts and aging programs, consider in particular the accessibility of the space in which participants meet or rehearse, how you communicate, and how participants travel to the program.
The facility used for an arts and aging program must have better-than-average accessibility. An accessible facility or space helps keep older adult participants safe. If there are no physical barriers or significant visual or aural distractions, they are more likely to concentrate and less likely to trip or fall. Here are some tips to consider when planning for accessibility:
- Look for a building without steps to the entrance and doors that are easy to open, are automatic, or have a power-assist. Fortunately, steps and doors are not an issue in most residential facilities or senior centers.
- Look for a room that is designated solely for your use during the session. Other activities in the same space are distracting to participants, and vice versa. “Outside” people also disrupt the environment of trust in your learning community.
- Ensure that you have clear, wide paths of travel throughout the facility to allow for people who are unsteady on their feet or use wheelchairs, canes, or walkers to maneuver easily.
- Make sure corridors and the designated program space are free of clutter or other hazards.
- Adjust the lighting in the room to reduce glare.
- Make your designated space special. Play music, change the lighting, bring in plants or objects, or drape tables with colorful cloths. The entrance to the space also contributes to the mood:
[Have] a designated threshold created to be crossed, in order to enter into ritual space. The threshold can take various forms. It can be as concrete as creating an arch to walk under, providing a rug to walk on, or an entryway to walk through, or there could simply be a white board on which participants sign their names.76
- Minimize distractions, especially if the participants have dementia.
- Allow for ample spacing between chairs. Ensure that participants feel connected to the group and not cramped. Make metal folding chairs more comfortable by supplying inexpensive foam cushions.
- Monitor the room temperature, watch for signs of discomfort, and learn how to control the thermostat. If participants are too hot or cold, they won’t focus.
- Monitor the acoustics and minimize unnecessary noise, but don’t limit conversation. Participants, particularly those with hearing aids that often amplify background noise, are distracted by sounds that echo around a space without any fabric, padding, or carpet.
- Position participants who have difficulty hearing and seeing at the front of the group or in a place with a good sight line to the conductor, director, or teaching artist.
Whether or not participants have hearing or vision losses, take special care in your communications:
- Use a portable PA system.
- Use as many printed instructions as you can to minimize misunderstanding due to hearing problems.
- Practice your best projection and diction when speaking to a group.
- Repeat directions. Verbal repetition not only helps with memory, but also can make the words clearer.
- Enlarge music and scripts.
Because some older adults have disabilities, these language tips are applicable:
- Never use the word handicapped; the word is disability.
- Never use a disability as an adjective: a writer who is blind, not a blind writer. Focus on the person, not the disability.
- Never use special, because this term separates the individual from the group. For example, information is not required regarding the special needs of the group, but needs of the group.
- Never use euphemisms, such as physically challenged or handicapable. These terms are condescending.
- Never use labels: the disabled, the blind, the deaf, A.B.s (able-bodied), T.A.B.s (temporarily able-bodied), or normal. Labeling people is never acceptable.77
When communicating with frail older adults or those with dementia:
- Face the person when you speak.
- Establish eye contact.
- Use hand gestures (point).
- Speak distinctly, calmly, and softly.
- Use simple sentences.
- Allow ample time for answers.
- Minimize background noises.
- Touch only when acceptable.
- Do not over use the word no; yes or maybe might be adequate.
- Sudden, quick, unexpected movements can be frightening.
- Let the person know the time of day and where they are, and reiterate what is going on every now and then.78
While transportation is not directly related to creating an environment of trust, it is an issue of physical accessibility and a major concern for older adults living in the community. Some have given up driving at night or at all times. Many of those with cars are anxious about traffic and parking. The lack of public transportation and accommodations to enhance the safety of older adults who are still driving is a challenge.
Accessible transportation means:
- A range of affordable travel modes within the community, including services for people with disabilities
- Age-friendly public environments, signage, and infrastructure
- Street infrastructure such as curb cuts, ramps, sidewalk surfaces, and signs for older adults with motor and/or sensory problems in public spaces, businesses, and community institutions
- Mobility amenities for walkers
- Trails, walking paths, and sidewalks
- Monitoring and feedback mechanisms to ensure adherence to speed limits and stop signs 79
To assist older adult participants, partner with the municipal senior transportation service; facilitate car pools; and investigate models such as volunteer drivers for cancer patients through the American Cancer Society or organizations that focus solely on older adults, like Senior Connection in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Most states have online guides to senior or retirement living with community transportation resources. Search for “retirement living guide” and the name of your state.
Setting Group Expectations
Clearly communicating expectations contributes to an environment of trust. Participants need to know the basic ground rules, such as dates, times, performances, rehearsals, and locations. Deliver these details verbally and in writing (in large type) on a one- or two-page policies and procedures information sheet.
The intangible expectations are more important than the tangible. Participants have to understand the programmatic parameters or rules, such as
- maintaining confidentiality within the group, particularly if the topics are personal;
- listening actively to each other without interrupting;
- respecting different points of view;
- valuing all artistic contributions; and
- making constructive—not judgmental—comments.
One effective technique is for the program leader or teaching artist to facilitate a discussion in which participants develop their own group expectations or norms. They can revisit their decisions at any time or when a member needs a refresher. For participants with more advanced dementia, group norms are likely too abstract to be relevant.
Related to group expectations is honoring the work created by older adult artists. They determine what happens to their art, and they need to trust that you will respect their decisions. Just as with any other artist, ask each one to complete a written consent form if you select his or her work for a publication, exhibition, performance, or presentation.
Key Points about Setting the Stage
- Pay attention to detail.
- Strive for universal design or at least seamless accessibility.
- Ensure physical and programmatic accessibility:
- No stairs
- Easily opened doors
- Bright, glare-free lighting
- Designated room
- “Special” décor
- Minimal background noise
- Comfortable temperature
- Space between tables and chairs to accommodate a person who uses a wheelchair
- Comfortable chairs
- Transportation options
- Ensure that communications are accessible:
- Large type
- High contrast
- Written and verbal instructions
- Distinct enunciation
- Respectful language
- Attention to needs of frail older adults or those with dementia
- Communicate logistical expectations
- Facilitate the establishment of group norms