What's there to do all day in assisted living? Depends on where you look. The definition of "activities" is expanding as older boomers and their parents seek ways to stay connected to their interests. Many communities are taking a holistic approach to wellness, including a shift in the menu of activity offerings.
Participation in meaningful activities has been shown to buffer against depression, a common risk in long-term care living. So does exercise, which also improves mobility and helps overall health. Engaging activities offer cognitive and social stimulation, help vent frustration, and lessen feelings of loss and loneliness.
Communities are moving away from the traditional mainstays of an activity program -- what's known in the industry as "the 3 Bs: bingo, Bible, and birthdays," says Charles de Vilmorin, cofounder and CEO of Linked Senior, a Washington, D.C., company that uses technology to assist activity staff at residential communities.
Activities shouldn't just be once-a-week special events, says geriatric care manager Kay Paggi of Dallas. "After all, life is all about activity -- it's what we do all day, every day. I want my clients to get back to doing as much as they can, even if it might be in a different way than they did at home."
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The challenge is that most facilities employ just one activities director, who has to consider the interests and abilities of as many as 60 or more individuals -- while operating on a limited budget (typically $10 per resident per month), de Vilmorin says. "Compare that to a schoolteacher, who has an average of 23 students, all of the same physical and mental status, and engages them all on a single topic."
"This is one place where resources and abilities really do matter," says Steve Maag, director of residential communities at Leading Age and a member of Center for Excellence in Assisted Living. "A very engaged and energetic director can do a lot, even with fewer resources, but absent that we still see a more cookie-cutter approach."
Here are four big trends in activities you might look for, and advice on how to find an activity program that clicks for your loved one.
Assisted living activity trend #1: Fitness, yoga, and walking clubs
As more residents enter long-term care with a history of being active, regardless of current functional ability, they bring an interest in extending a life that includes movement.
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Personalized wellness programs
Large programs offer fitness assessments, goal plans, and talks about health and nutrition.
The increasingly popular gentle stretching and range-of-motion routine of tai chi improves balance and relieves stress -- and can be done by participants of almost any level of physical function.
Classes include ability-tailored "yoga for seniors" taught by trained instructors or therapeutic yoga for those with physical limitations, including wheelchair users.
Wii sports (such as bowling) and Wii dancing
Wii interactive computer games can be offered both informally and as organized group tournaments.
Some walk locally in parks or neighborhoods; others travel to malls for indoor walking. Others organize for advocacy walks to raise funds for causes like arthritis or Alzheimer's research.
Discover New and Unusual Assisted Living Activities Programs
Innovators in this field are changing the very idea of residential living by introducing elements not normally found there.
It's not unusual for special-guest pets to be brought in to spend time with residents, who may miss animals they've given up. What's really new and different: Some sites house resident pets -- from fish in tanks, wandering cats, guinea pigs, and bunnies to miniature ponies -- who mingle with the humans who live there.
College-level continuing education
Innovative facilities affiliated with higher learning institutions, such as those in Campus Continuum, create university-branded institutions where residents might see a dean of senior students and take advantage of the school's academic, sports, and cultural offerings. Other facilities aren't formally affiliated with colleges but make it possible for residents to hear guest lecturers or take college courses.
Because creating a lasting legacy is a common goal for older adults, some activities directors team with local experts who help residents preserve their life stories by writing memoirs and creating scrapbooks.
From flash mobs to karaoke to singing or dancing groups, savvy activities directors with a gift for choreography find ways to involve residents in social trends.
How Assisted Living Residents Can Enjoy Their Favorite Hobbies
People like to do what they've always done, notes geriatric care manager Kay Paggi, and this includes activities related to former work or household tasks.
Many communities help residents continue their lifelong interests and hobbies. Gardeners can help care for flower or vegetable plots in some assisted living locations. Tinkerers work on repair projects together. Some communities offer woodworking, quilting, and similar activities.
Computer courses or tech assistance
More people entering assisted living are already familiar with digital technologies -- they want to keep up with the latest gadgets, or get help when they're stuck. Some programs use iPads as an easier-to-understand alternative to computers. iPads can also be helpful for those with some cognitive impairment.
Even those who no longer run their own kitchens often enjoy discovering new cuisine and learning new recipes.
Many communities partner with preschools or work with Scout troops, elementary schools, or other organizations to encourage interactions between older adults and kids.
How to Enjoy Art, Music, and Cultural Outings in Assisted Living
Watching movies and pasting collages is so 20th century. Arts and culture are now considered a mainstay of wellness.
Sophisticated classes like pottery and oil painting go beyond simple arts and crafts. Seniors Making Art is a Seattle program founded by glass artist Dale Chihuly that brings professional artists to all kinds of settings, including long-term care.
Group cultural outings
Community vans and buses enable residents to access a wide range of resources like museums, plays, and musical performances. Sometimes these excursions include extras like discounted tickets or special tours with docents.
Music therapy programs
These bring in trained music therapists to entertain and provide small-group cognitive stimulation, especially to those in memory-care or dementia-care units.
How to Evaluate an Assisted Living Activities Program
To find an activities program that's a good match for your loved one's interests:
Meet with the activities director to discuss the prospective resident's preferences and interests, and to learn how they match up with what's available.
Ask to see the activities calendar, says Center for Excellence in Assisted Living's Steve Maag. That gives you a sense of what kind of regular and special events are available, and how often.
Ask how many activity directors are on staff. The job is like being a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, with charges of different ages, interests, and abilities. Yet many facilities have just one person managing all this programming. Much depends on the individual, but usually more resources of time and money mean better programming.
Find out what men in the facility do; often programs are designed for older women (the majority gender) to the exclusion of male interests.
Look for an activities director who's been certified by the National Certification Council for Activity Professionals (NCCAP). In 2012, the group introduced certification to those who pass a national exam in an effort to raise professionalism among its ranks.
Don't be dazzled by what you would like -- focus on your loved one's idea of fun. "There's a growing split between younger and older residents," says social worker Lisa P. Gwyther of Duke University, coauthor of The Alzheimer's Action Plan. "Many younger ones want variety, but older ones get upset if you take away their bingo and try to teach them Sudoku instead." So if your mom likes bingo, make sure she gets it.