Activity Directors' Tips for Creating Meaningful Senior Activities

By Kay Paggi
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What do your typical daily activities include? Perhaps you go to work, talk to family and friends, exercise, go out to eat, attend worship, read or watch TV. There are probably lots more activities that you can add to that list. Now imagine yourself in a nursing home. Here the activities available to you may include Bingo, an afternoon tea party, trivia, or a bean bag toss. Wow. Is it any wonder that most residents in nursing homes are depressed and have cognitive decline? When was the last time a tea party was part of your regular activity? What about trivia? We spend our lives involved in pursuits of all kinds, both personal and professional. The inclination to be active and involved in things does not change as we age, but the things we are doing may change.

Professionals in the field of aging evaluate an elder’s ability to perform tasks of daily living to assess how much assistance is needed. Early in the aging process, the elder is assessed on his or her ability to shop, do routine housekeeping and laundry, handle personal finances, use the telephone, and manage medications. As they become more impaired, older adults are assessed on the activities of daily living. These include dressing, eating independently, transferring from a bed to a chair, toileting (including being able to get oneself to the bathroom), and walking. The amount of help a person requires to perform any of these activities is a measure of the level of care that would be necessary in a facility. However, caregivers can also use these functional assessments to design appropriate recreational activities.

Simple Tools, Endless Opportunities

In creating activities for residents, Natalie uses a few simple tools, which you can also use to come up with activities for your loved one or care recipient. First, she asks residents or their family members to make what she calls an “I Can” list, which details the residents’ physical, cognitive, communication and socializing abilities. In addition to these categories, include lifelong abilities such as singing, card playing, work habits, playing an instrument, sewing, cooking, etc. Here’s a brief list of things you may want to include in each category, but use your imagination to add even more:

  • Physical: being able to walk, clap, fold, cut, write, color and dance
  • Cognitive: sorting, matching, rhyming, reading, recalling and spelling
  • Communication: waving, expressing thoughts, smiling, writing, talking, conversing and greeting
  • Socialization: responding to others, participating as an observer, and gesturing

Another easy-to-use tool that will help you get started is the following short informational survey. Have the elder fill in the blanks, and use these answers to inform the activities you come up with. Be creative. If the elder is particularly passionate about a certain topic, start there.

All About Me

My friends call me ____________. I lived in ____________; prior to that I lived in ____________ and ____________. My favorite thing about home is ____________. I am a ____________ (farmer, artist, fisherman, golfer). When I was young I used to love to ____________. Some of my favorite things are ____________. I am very good at ____________ and I am proud of ____________. My favorite place to visit is ____________. I like to read ____________, and listen to ____________. My favorite leisure pastime is ____________. My favorite foods are ____________. Three things I would like others to know about me are ____________.

Engage in Some Q & A

Earlier I asked you to imagine yourself in a nursing home. Perhaps that was hard to do. But if you suddenly had to move into assisted living because you broke a hip and had to use a walker, could you imagine that for a moment? It would make grocery shopping and meal preparation difficult to say the least, and you probably wouldn’t be able to drive, either. I doubt you would have any interest in going to a tea party or tossing a bean bag, so you might just stay in your apartment and think about the good old days. Consider yourself lucky if you can’t imagine this. But it’s probably a real concern, if not the reality, for many elders, so put yourself in their shoes and ask the questions you would want to be asked. Questions like these:

  • What did you used to enjoy doing?
  • What kind of physical activities did you enjoy?
  • Did you do any craft or handwork?
  • Do you enjoy being outdoors or are you more of an “indoor” person?
  • Do you enjoy reading? What do you read?
  • Have you been active in clubs or civic organizations?
  • Did you ever enjoy going to events like plays or ball games or garage sales?

Use this information to develop activities aimed at putting the elder’s past into his or her present. If your loved one or client lives in a senior care facility, it is up to you to ask the activity director there to give this kind of personal attention to every resident. Ask what kinds of activity classes are available, and ask the administrator to provide time away for the activity director to take courses that will enrich the activity program. Every resident in every assisted living community and every nursing home deserves to have interesting activities, mentally stimulating activities, and activities that relate to his or her past interests. Make it happen!

Sites to Help You Brainstorm Activities

If you want to read more about creating activities that promote dignity using an elder’s past interests, peruse the following Web sites to help stimulate your creativity.

www.eldersong.com

www.heartwarmers.org

www.birdsandblooms.com

www.legacyproject.org

www.alzheimersreaders.com

www.joyandaction.com

Or try these Web sites for activities that are more cognitive, including brain games, IQ tests, logic puzzles and more:

www.funbrain.com

www.monkeyingaround.com

www.playwithyourmind.com