Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Therapeutic Recreation: More than just activities

By Jennifer Sills, I Choose Home New Jersey

Last year I was honored to present a program at a quarterly Volunteer Advocate meeting in Freehold on the importance of recreation in long-term care settings.

Because I spent most of my career as a recreation therapist – before joining the ICHNJ program—I have significant expertise in this area.  Throughout my career, I have worked with seniors with varying stages of dementia and it is always a challenge to find activities that will afford them autonomy and allow them to experience success.

I chose to discuss the topic of "Emotional Memory.” I showed the volunteers an extremely moving slide show I often used with my clients – it was called “Mother.”

When the slide show was complete, I could see that many of the volunteers were emotionally affected by the presentation.  One specific volunteer, Mr. Brian M. Gorman, of Princeton, approached me after the program to ask if I would please send him a copy of the manuscript I had read during the show. 

As I began to develop the idea behind this article I contacted Mr. Gorman to inquire why this manuscript was important to him, and how the role of recreation affects him when he visits the nursing home to which he is assigned. 

Mr. Gorman explained to me that the slide show and the manuscript reminded him of special times he spent with his Mother. He said when he sees seniors engaging in activities it "warms me up.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe how it feels to see someone become positively engaged in a therapeutic activity – especially someone with significant cognitive impairments or who has been otherwise difficult to reach.

Mr. Gorman went on to explain that even Bingo can be engaging. What many people don't realize is that Bingo is a very therapeutic activity!  It is more than gambling.  It utilizes fine motor skills, concentration and self-control.  Bingo has been used to assist people who have social anxiety issues. It provides a way for these individuals to be in a small group and have success without being overwhelmed by attention, or the feeling that they need to perform.  Bingo provides mental stimulation and is effective in helping to keep seniors alert and oriented to their surroundings.  It is also a way to help people with physical limitations engage in a group activity that is less physically demanding.

Recreation therapy and activities help to create a non-judgmental environment for seniors. Many people who are coming to long-term care facilities are experiencing loss.  Homes have been sold, autonomy of schedule has changed, and some are learning to adapt to physical and mental challenges that are frustrating and frightening.

Recreation therapy utilizes a wide range of interventions and techniques to help improve or maintain the physical, cognitive, emotional, and the social and leisure needs of clients.  The goal of recreation therapy is to restore or rehabilitate functional independence in a person. 

Therapeutic activities are included as a component of quality of life in nursing homes, and facilities must now provide for an "ongoing program of activities designed to meet, in accordance with the comprehensive assessment, the interests, and the physical, mental and psychosocial wellbeing of each resident." (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1989). It is imperative that recreation directors be creative in how they develop their programs so they meet the needs of all of their clients.  As we all know, everyone is different.  While one person may love musical programs and Bingo games, another prefers to read independently in their room.  With the assistance of volunteers, especially those from the Office of The Ombudsman, recreation directors are able to gain specific information about all of the residents and their recreation needs and desires.  With this valuable information, programs can be developed to facilitate and encourage autonomy and success.

There is a saying in the field of recreation therapy that, in my opinion, captures it importance: "Physical therapy heals from the waist down, occupational therapy heals from the waste up and recreation therapy heals from the inside out."

Jennifer Sills is an Outreach Coordinator with the OOIE I Choose Home NJ program. After spending most of her career as a Recreation Director in a long-term care community, Sills joined the ICHNJ program and now helps nursing home residents transition from a nursing home back to into the community.


  1. Hi Jennifer! This post is very informative. I love how you explained the importance of recreational activities for seniors, and decided to share it to our site’s readers through our Weekly Digest. You can read it here http://www.ltcoptions.com/weekly-digest-retirement-caregiving-therapeutic-recreation/. Thanks!

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