A sign of friendship amongst residents
The residents are learning sign language with the help of Nikki de Jonge, a diversional therapist from the St Vincent’s Aged Care Services facility opposite the retirement village on Baden Powell Street.
The group decided they wanted to learn signing to support their friend at St Vincent’s who was losing his ability to speak. A Covid lockdown in 2020 halted visitors to the nursing home, so the same day Nikki started the classes at St Vincent’s she also began classes at The Avenue.
Later, Nikki introduced Mereaira Poutu to the group after she moved into St Vincent’s. Mereaira, who was born deaf, loves being a part of the signing classes at The Avenue. “When the class is signing, Mereaira says she feels happy that the others are coming into her world,’’ Nikki says. “Mereaira says ‘these are my friends’. The classes have been good for Mereaira and good for the residents here. It has made the connection more of a community between The Avenue and St Vincent’s across the road.’’
The residents have been learning Auslan, the Australian version of signing. “Other countries have their own systems, like dialects, and some areas even have their own slang. And just like learning any new language it needs practice,’’ Nikki says.
“The Avenue group is doing really well. They have each other to practice on and the best thing for me is since Mereaira arrived at St Vincent’s my signing has really improved too. I also work with people with dementia, so I appreciate the importance of using different parts of the brain for prevention and learning new skills - you are never too old to learn.’’
Most members of The Avenue group started from scratch but Allison Mooney, who fostered a non-verbal child in the 1980s, learnt some signing from him and says she has remembered some of the signs she had learned after taking part in the classes.
“Ilona (Speed) and Jan (Groves), like me, knew nothing but Ilona does her homework and is way ahead of us,’’ Val says.
Ilona says: “I am just enjoying it so much. I get onto the computer outside the classes to do a bit extra and have learnt the days of the week, that sort of thing.’’
Val says learning Auslan has not only been a valuable brain training tool but the participants are confident they could support a deaf person if they came across someone who needed assistance. “Not only would we be able to help someone but for us it’s important for our own mental stimulation. It is providing us with the same benefit as learning a new language. If we were to learn French, Spanish or Latin how could we actually use it in our own lives now? But with signing we see the benefits and its usefulness,’’ Val says.
“The other element is that we live here and everyone is busy doing their own things and just for this time we come to sign it is a way of coming together. I say comfortably these are my friends and it has actually brought us even closer. Now that we have been doing the classes for a few months we are trying to move into more conversations with our signing. We say ‘Allison tell us what you did this week’ and then Ilona will also reply.’’
The participants know the alphabet in sign too so when they use proper nouns, such as names or places, they can finger spell them.
“We say ‘good morning’ to each other in sign and we do it unconsciously,’’ Allison says. “It is also fun for us. It’s not just coming to a class - it is a very social and positive thing to do.’’
Val says: “We meet in the afternoon when Nikki comes over after work. The hour goes by and we don’t notice the time as we are laughing and having a lot of fun.’’
The classes at The Avenue Maroochydore are casual and relaxed. A beginners’ group is held on Tuesdays and another on Mondays. Members of the public are welcome to join the classes, call (07) 5479 6482 or email email@example.com.