This year I've had the privilege of taking my church youth group to a local nursing home once per month to lead a church service. When I first approached the nursing home's activities director with this idea, her response was: "We've never had someone come in on Sunday mornings to do church services!" Needless to say, the activities director and the residents were quite excited about this new event.
But what do you need to know in order to teach effectively among senior citizens? Of course, senior citizens are adults, so everything mentioned in the previous article applies here as well, but our senior citizens are worthy of their very own special category. I don't pretend to be an expert in this area, but let me offer two very simple pieces of advice that I have learned.
Can You Hear Me Now?
"Can you hear me now?" is the catchphrase for a cellular company, but it's a question every speaker should ask. Particularly when dealing with a group containing senior citizens.
Hearing loss is a simple fact of life for all of us as we age. For some the loss is drastic -- for others it is less severe. But it is something we need to be aware of if we want to be effective teachers.
So, for starters, get comfortable with a microphone. Don't be afraid of it, don't shy away from it. Let it become your friend, and never wander away from it. Make sure you have someone running the sound system who is paying attention enough to turn the volume up or down as appropriate.
Many people dislike using microphones. They say "Oh, everyone can hear me without this," and refuse to use it. What they don't understand is that no matter how loud they are, without the amplification of the sound system, they will certainly lose some of the older folks. In essence, they are saying to the elderly, (although they don't realize it, and never would intentionally say this) "You don't matter, and I really don't care if you can't hear me."
Typical hearing loss occurs in the frequency ranges where many of our consonant sounds occur. So it's not just enough to use a microphone; you must clearly pronounce every syllable, and every consonant and vowel of every syllable.
To a person with hearing loss, someone who does not clearly and carefully pronounce all their consonant sounds is completely incomprehensible. Imagine trying to understand what someone was saying if you couldn't hear any of their consonants! All you would hear is a series of short and long vowel sounds, which is not enough auditory information to understand words.
In addition to all this, avoid sudden drops and rises in volume. Unfortunately, many speakers (including myself) like to use drops and rises in volume for dramatic effect. You reach the culmination of your point, and you speak more softly (or more loudly, depending on the kind of impact you want to make). If you must do drops and rises, you need to understand that it's not actually the volume of your voice that makes the impact, it's the tonal quality. Thus, if you drop your voice, lean into the microphone when you do it. This keeps your volume the same, while producing the impact you want. In contrast, if you raise the volume of your voice, lean (or step) back from the microphone.
Everything up to this point has been simply the technical issues of being heard. But here is the most important non-technical issue: Treat your audience with respect. Certainly, you should show respect to your audience no matter their age, but there is a special place of honor which is reserved for the older men and women, who have walked through the trials and joys of life for so many years.
Historically, and in most cultures, the elderly are revered. In Biblical times they were the ones who had seats of honor, and whose advice and counsel were eagerly sought. Today, in our culture, we have no such respect for our elderly. We are the cult of youth -- we think that the young know more, are wiser, have more to offer, and are the most important.
In the previous article in this series, I mentioned that it is rarely wise to "berate" a group of adults -- for senior citizens we take that principle and multiply it by ten. When you teach a group of senior citizens, it is best to approach your teaching opportunity as an opportunity to remind them of things they already know; if you approach them with the attitude that you are going to "teach an old dog new tricks," you will quickly discover that they regard you as a "young upstart." I could say a great deal about this, but Paul said it simply and eloquently in his letter to Timothy: