Mentoring Disabled Young Woman
February 13, 2012 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Ideas for once-a-week meeting with mentally disabled young woman?

For over a year now, I have been meeting once a week for about 2 hours with a 26 year old young woman with some mental disabilities. However I am running into challenges with how to spend the time with her.

About the situation:

We are located in China; she is Chinese, I am American. I met her through an organization that matches up volunteers with young adults with mental disabilities. I speak Chinese basically fluently; she speaks no English.

About her:

I am not sure what her exact disability is, but her IQ does not seem to be especially low. To me it seems she struggles more with social interaction. Her behavior seems childlike. She does not seem to like to talk but she understands what people say to her. She likes drawing and art and is quite talented. She acts quite shy but seems to like to be around and meet new people.

About the situation:

We have been meeting in evenings once a week from around 7 to 9 pm. At this time I am supposed to be at the office but I can take a break. What we have done in the past is some drawing in my office, and then gone nearby to get ice cream.

However, at some point a few months ago she seemed to get moodier. I think it had to do with me cancelling the meeting a couple of times due to things coming up. She once told me she was mad at me, and I didn't know what to say. She was never talkative but at this point she basically is silent the entire time, even if I ask her questions. I don't know what to do to fill up the time. I've even started to feel a little resentful and bored. I've talked to her mother about this, and her mother basically said she doesn't know what to do. Her mother brings me gifts and food each time we meet up and has basically told me many times that she hopes we can continue to meet as long as I live in this city. I find her to be a pit pushy, but she means well. (I can give examples if necessary).

So, the problem is that I no longer really enjoy the meetings, and I am starting to feel it is a burden on me; however, I know the mother and daughter would be disappointed and even angry if I just told them I couldn't meet anymore. They basically treat me like a family member. At the same time, I am really at a loss at what to do during these meetings. I guess if we met during the weekend we could do more activities thus avoiding the talking thing, but to be honest I like to keep my weekends as my own.

I would really appreciate suggestions for this situation. (what I can do differently, etc). I can give more info if necessary.

I have tried to talk to the young woman about this, but she really isn't forthcoming. She seemed to like me a lot in the beginning, but has cooled off a lot. In the past I have worked with youth with disabilities, and enjoyed it, but they were more talkative/interactive.
posted by bearette to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is it possible to speak privately with the mother and learn about what the daughter's specific disability is? Maybe you can do some research on that, and get some ideas that way? Maybe mom can give some suggestions on ways to spend your time

Some other ideas... since she likes to draw, maybe pick up some books on art to go through with her... if you can watch tv maybe look into some documentaries on artists whose styles and stories she might find interesting.. Try to find things that might encourage her to sit and talk with you, tell you about her day and such? Maybe try listening to different types of music and see if she'll tell you what she thinks about it, what she likes or doesn't and why.

She might be becoming moodier because she can tell you're uncomfortable and want to stop seeing her, especially if the couple of cancellations upset her so much. Maybe you could try talking to her a bit about your life, the things you do with your time, to help her understand why you had to cancel and how it has nothing to do with her.

If all else fails, you might be able to just stick with the one thing that you know she likes... if she enjoys drawing, maybe pick up some art supplies (the internet can likely provide a decent selection for reasonable prices)... coloring pencils, markers, paint, sketchbook... ask her to experiment with different types of art (could also work well in conjunction with picking up books about different styles).

If she's the type that might enjoy an assignment... maybe see about a cheap digital camera (her family may even have one that she can use) and asking her to take a picture of something different every day so that when she sees you again she can tell you about each one and why she wanted to share it.
posted by myShanon at 9:19 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Did you apologize to her for canceling the meetings, and emphasize that she is very important to you? It sounds like she still has hurt feelings about those cancellations, and clearing the air may help. Tell her in as much detail as possible why you had to cancel, how you (hopefully) gave them as much advance notice of canceling as possible, and how you were also disappointed in not getting to meet.

Maybe if she's not too verbal you can also ask her to draw how it made her feel, and you can draw a reconciliation between the two of you.

As far as what to do: I'd start with playing games aimed at younger children, and especially games like Pictionary may suit her quite well. Or try to put a puzzle together. This sort of joint effort, along with the above apology stuff, should hopefully get her talking again.

You can also research if there are any art contests that seem appropriate for her to enter, and then you can work together on getting a piece ready for entering (drawing it, matting/framing, etc). Or you can do artsy-crafty things like make refrigerator magnets or dying eggs.

Or you can teach her a hobby you love. Are you into anything? Astronomy? Gardening? Sewing?
posted by vegartanipla at 9:33 PM on February 13, 2012

It sounds like your guess that her change in attitude had do with you missing a couple sessions. If she pulled back because she is afraid that you are going to abandon her, it will take both some clear messages plus patience on your part to get things back on track.

I would experiment with activities that you like (especially if you can do for fun but aren't good at it) that she might want to share with you. It will be more fun for you if you can find common ground, preferably one that doesn't require too much talking. One place to start would be to do your own drawing/painting when she does. Or something crafty (stringing beads to make jewelry). If you have access to kitchen, cooking together can be fun and lets you divide tasks according to ability and interest. The digital camera also sounds like a good idea to me.
posted by metahawk at 9:46 PM on February 13, 2012

(I'll be honest I had to edit myself a little hear, I hope it does not come over as too harsh)

So... why are you doing this? What are the goals and aims of setting up these meetings?

It is very difficult to parse out what is happening in this situation, in part because of the remoteness of the relation dynamic, but of course because of the non-talkativeness, but possibilities are:

1. The lady may be seeing you more of a convenient baby sitter than a friend, you only see her these two hours once a week and not even always. Your interactions are restricted and limited by the strictness of time and place.

2. She may be picking up on your frustration and that it is a burden to you now, if it is not fun for you what makes you think it is fun for her.

3. She may be bored (see 1).

Have you asked the organization for ideas, do you have a sense for what her history is? What has she like to do in the past and so on .... I suspect, however, fundamentally the times/settings/activities may need to change (and continue to change) or you need to drop it altogether. People are dynamic, and giving her the benefit of the doubt she has all the desires, needs and wants as any one of us. How would you want to be treated if you where unable to communicate effectively?
posted by edgeways at 9:49 PM on February 13, 2012

agg ...'here'
posted by edgeways at 9:50 PM on February 13, 2012

Are you sure you want to continue with this? I bet your resentment and boredom is showing, and this young woman really deserves a friend who doesn't see her as a burden. It sounds like you are very important to her since she is very isolated so I can understand how you canceling the meetings might have made her feel abandoned and rejected. So basically I think you should question your own motives and if you really want to continue with this, because maybe she could be matched with somebody who is more compatible before she gets more attached to you.
posted by timsneezed at 9:58 PM on February 13, 2012

*are showing
posted by timsneezed at 9:59 PM on February 13, 2012

Response by poster: To answer some questions:

I initially wanted to do this because as I've said I enjoyed worked with disabled youth in the past. I also thought it'd be a way to get involved in the community and even make a friend.

The meetings I cancelled initially were for reasons like work stuff or illness. I figured this could happen sometimes because stuff comes up. But I probably should have been more apologetic/reassuring. As I said, we have been meeting weekly for almost a year and a half.

I'm sure she is bored, and is picking up on my frustration. That is why I asked the question. As far as her getting a "better match", this probably isn't going to happen due to lack of volunteers and lack of understanding of disabilities in China. Besides, my meeting with her is not preventing her from meeting other volunteers, if there were any.

I started this out really wanting to do it, but to be honest, yes, I am questioning that now. Some of you seem to be implying I am less than responsible or honorable in my intentions. But I am trying.
posted by bearette at 10:26 PM on February 13, 2012

I don't know if logistically any of these activities would work for you, but maybe switching up the activity could help your situation.

I've worked with a lot of non-verbal children; these are some of the activities we've done together:

-go to the movies or watch a video
-do a large jigsaw puzzle
-draw/paint/play with modeling clay while listening to music
-figure out a semi-long term art project or new skill (beading, collage, etc.) and work at that for a couple of weeks
-look through books or magazines or catalogs together
-board games

The advantage to these activities is that they will give you something to talk about, even if she isn't all that interested in talking. Even if you're looking through a magazine and you ask her which dress she likes the best, she can maybe point to it if she doesn't want to talk.

Good luck, it sounds like you're trying to figure out a way to make this work.
posted by corey flood at 10:39 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know if my experience is applicable but I was a Big Sister for 6 years with a young girl. We got bored and even slightly sick of one another if we were not doing something. You can only sit around so much and then its just a big time suck. I did what others here have suggested. I introduced her to things I liked. What do you like? She likes to draw, why not go to a museum or art opening. If you cannot be more active with her it is probably going to continue to deteriorate. She may feel as bored as you do but culturally unable to admit that.
posted by cairnoflore at 11:30 PM on February 13, 2012

Response by poster: cairnoflore: you make good points. I guess part of the problem is, we meet in the evening when not much is open, and also, I am supposed to stay near my office so I cannot go too far.
posted by bearette at 11:33 PM on February 13, 2012

Best answer: Fun self-fulfillment volunteering ends up making little difference to people in need. If you know you're not going to last much longer, put your focus on finding a good replacement volunteer for this girl.

From her perspective, you could be someone she looks forward to the whole week, and for her mum, the only time she gets to herself. The impact could potentially be far bigger than just the two hours - your two hours mean a lot more.

It really sounds like you're not getting support from the organisation so you're getting burned out. Ask them if they have other experienced volunteers you can talk to who can give you advice or if there are meet-ups for volunteers. These can be really encouraging.

Another way is to do a joint project. I get bored really easily with children, including my own, because I am a cantankerous old lady, so doing projects really helps. You could get a giant poster board to stash in your office and slowly draw/colour it in over a few weeks, or make a scrapbook of the city or a series of comic pages or a recipe book with illustrations. There are awesome teach-yourself-to-draw books that you could work through together. That way you have something to do each week and see progress on. Or pick a craft to learn together! You could both learn to knit!

Also board games - there are a bunch of fun games to play like Othello, Egyptian War or Ludo that rely as much on luck as skill. Just stay away from Monopoly - we "mysteriously" lost it twice because it is so painful to play.

What you're doing really does make a difference. There's nothing wrong with wanting it to be enjoyable, but accept that you'll have the brunt of the work to make it enjoyable because of her limited social skills and cognitive abilities.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:20 AM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

If she's not forthcoming about ideas of what to do together, will she at least say yes or no to things you suggest? Easy craft kits/ideas, puzzles, there are even adult-focused coloring pages you could print out and do together (seriously, it's relaxing. ;) stuff like this: geometrical patterns, and there are coloring books like those on amazon - stained glass patterns, etc.)
posted by lemniskate at 5:12 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there someplace nearby that you could go as a special field trip - get a manicure, or go to a park, take photos together as you go on a walk, or something like that? If you think about arts and crafts like others have mentioned, can you focus it on making a gift for her mother - is there something her mother would like that you two can work on sewing or making over a few weeks?

Is there any way to rearrange your schedule either with her or with your office - can you come in early one day a week so when you are ready to be with her you don't have to go back to work? Or can you meet with her in the morning before you go in?

Also - when you have to cancel, are you able to schedule a make-up day in that same week? If her attitude is really due to the cancellation, that might help.
posted by CathyG at 4:22 PM on February 14, 2012

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