Today, seniors in most assisted living and residential care communities have access to a variety of programs to keep them active and engaged, from art sessions and dance classes to book clubs and yoga. But for decades, activities were extremely limited, if they were offered at all, and the impact on seniors’ mental and physical health was devastating.
As activity programs continue to evolve, the long-term care industry needs to learn from the mistakes of the past and embrace modern-day research to develop meaningful programs that are part of a senior’s complete care plan.
The evolution of long-term care and the rise of activity programs
At the turn of the twentieth century, almshouses established by charities and churches housed individuals who could no longer care for themselves, but for many, the living conditions were horrific. In 1935, the Social Security Act (SSA) made federal money available to help fund senior housing, and in turn, spawned the nursing home industry. By 1967, the SSA required states to govern the licenses of administrators in response to public outcry over fraud and abuse in nursing homes.
Around the same time, research found that the loss of occupation, isolation from family and loneliness contributed to frailty and chronic health conditions in seniors. To provide activities that would fill residents’ days, long-term care staff began to rely on the help of volunteers and church groups to host bingo, Bible studies and birthday parties. During the 1970s and 80s, the industry recognized the need for dedicated staff who could tailor activities to seniors’ needs and cognitive abilities – so, in 1986, the National Association of Activity Professionals established a certification body to ensure staff members were educated and trained in activity-based care.
Today’s mission: Building programs that are recreational and meaningful
Even when activity programs became a long-term care mainstay, most were recreational time fillers that offered little substance. These non-stop, superficial activities focused on distraction and designed without residents’ input left seniors feeling frustration due to a lack of influence and independence.
Studies today show it’s the “meaningfulness” of activities that amplify the benefits of participation, especially when they allow seniors to express their personal values, build social connections and retain their sense of purpose. Artfully Aging’s therapeutic watercolor art program, for instance, promotes brain stimulation, encourages social interaction and reminiscing, and provides seniors with a sense of accomplishment. And because it can be tailored to different care levels, residents never feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
Moving forward, when activity directors and staff are in program planning mode, they must recognize seniors as the individuals they are and offer innovative activities that coincide with their interests and needs. As activities and education consultant Natalie Davis told U.S. News & World Report, “We’re past just trying to fill time. We want to enrich lives.”