I’m thrilled to feature this guest post by Michelle Seitzer, senior blogger for SeniorsForLiving.com. Michelle shares our mission, philosophy, and approach, and offers an inspiring look at engaging seniors in activities that bring them joy.
Before I hand over the stage to Michelle, I’d like to share a few techniques for helping a person with dementia achieve the optimum level of success with activities.
- Use a compensatory approach. Use a modified communication style to stimulate the resident’s understanding, interest, and trust. Adjust the environment so it’s supportive and not a hindrance. Simplify activities to the just-right challenge level so that the activity is neither too challenging nor too simple.
- Maintain routines and use familiar supplies that engage the resident’s long-term memory.
- Make activities as multisensory as possible to capture interest and spark long-term memory. The sense of smell adheres especially strongly to long-term memory, so if doing an activity such as “travel trivia” and the goal is for residents to name famous beaches, before engaging residents in the discussion, pass around suntan lotion for residents to smell. This will likely help those with dementia better retrieve memories of going to the beach.
And now, without further ado, thanks to Michelle for sharing the following best-practice tips!
Thinking Outside the (Calendar) Box: Engaging Senior-Living Residents in Meaningful Activities
There are 1,440 minutes in a day. Take away working, commuting, eating, caregiving, and sleeping, and you’re left with several hundred minutes to engage in other activities.
Most of us find ways to fill that time to the point where we crave more minutes in the day, but in assisted living, the equation changes dramatically. Less time is spent preparing meals, working, maintaining a home, and caring for family members. All that downtime can be a challenge to fill, especially for people with reduced mobility and cognitive function.
Enter the activities department. Life enrichment directors, social programmers—whatever name is used—most senior care communities have a limited number of these professionals who are tasked with keeping residents busy.
The directive to fill the days with meaningful, enjoyable activities often comes from upper-level management who want a calendar brimming with events and enrichment opportunities that they can share with prospective residents. There is nothing wrong with this desire, but it’s important to remember that quantity does not always equal quality. Some residents regularly engage in activities on their own, an optimal thing even though it’s not reflected on public calendars.
Still, it’s the role of the activity staff to foster several diverse opportunities for community-wide engagement each day. But when you’re talking about residents of all ages, all backgrounds, varied interests, and varied abilities, the task is far from simple.
Life Activities Versus Special Events
First off, let’s think about the word itself: “activities.” When you hear it in the context of an assisted living community, you probably think of bingo, trivia, Wii bowling tournaments, holiday celebrations, or music programs. However, a morning walk, having a conversation, getting dressed, going to lunch, or feeding the community pets are all activities too, even if they’re not on the calendar.
Also, activities do not have to be completed in the community’s dedicated activity space—or with other residents—to count as formal activities. Sometimes, the role of an activity director is simply to provide residents with resources or supplies that foster independent activities. Here are a few examples:
- Coordinate with a local library to bring in books.
- Coordinate with a pet-therapy program to provide regular friendly (furry) visitors.
- Set out yarn and knitting/crocheting needles or other items on a dedicated table in the activity room/art studio.
- Place a puzzle in the community library for residents to work on at their leisure.
- Arrange a hospitality cart in the living room each morning so that residents can read the paper with a cup of tea or coffee in hand.
- Maintain an area with several computers for resident use.
- Pair up residents with students from a local school to connect via email, letters, or phone.
- Bring in staff members from the dining department between meals to do a special cooking class, or to get residents’ help in preparing salads or desserts for the evening meal.
It may seem that the time, money, and energy needed to furnish these opportunities could be better spent on activities that get more people involved. But high numbers of participants should not be the sole measurement for defining activity success. Residents may end up inviting a friend to join them in the library to work on a puzzle together, or to have coffee and talk about current events before breakfast. These kinds of organically occurring activities are equally important and just as much of a victory as filling an auditorium for a guest lecture or concert.
When activity directors provide tools that empower residents to engage on their own initiative, they create a greater sense of ownership, which fosters participation without forcing it, and drives activity without dictating it.
As I mentioned in my previous guest post, “Best Practices for Activities Programming in Dementia Care Units,” the use of peer mentors is another great way to boost participation, especially in Alzheimer’s care facilities. No matter how personable the activity director may be, a resident who is hesitant to participate in afternoon trivia may be more inclined to attend if a neighbor invites her, or if she knows she has someone who will sit beside her and repeat or explain the questions as needed.
Another great activity motivator: children, teens, and young adults. Intergenerational programs are often the most well-attended events, perhaps because elders enjoy the breath of fresh air that young people can bring.
A bit of effort is required on the front end to make these interactions and connections possible, but once these programs get off the ground, they don’t need much to keep moving. There will be more time available to plan big events and weekly shopping trips, and you can fill those calendar boxes with activities suited to residents’ likes, interests, and abilities—empowering them to engage in activities that make them smile.
Michelle Seitzer spent 10 years filling various roles at assisted living communities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, then worked as a public policy coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association in PA before settling down as a full-time freelance writer. Seitzer also served as a long-distance caregiver for her beloved grandfather, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2009. She blogs for SeniorsForLiving.com, which provides information on assisted living, home care, and Alzheimer’s care, and is the co-moderator of the first #ElderCareChat on Twitter, held every other Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. EST. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.