An opinion piece on ideas for a “different type of assisted living facility” recently caught my eye. Besides getting an e-mail alert about it, a colleague posted the piece on my Facebook page, knowing that in my former life I served as an activities director. I had to check it out.
Jan Sykes submitted the piece to The Miami County Republic and shared her activity ideas for elderly men in assisted living facilities, which her father called “glorified prisons.” She begins with the questions:
“Why are the activity directors at assisted living centers often young women? How would they know what retired, outdoor-loving widowers enjoy doing?”
She has a point: I know a lot of activity directors who are young women. I was one of those young women when I graduated college. However, during my years on the senior living circuit, I certainly met my share of older women and occasionally young men serving in that role.
I think her next question is a bit unfair. I often asked the men what they would like to do to ensure that I had a well-rounded schedule. And there are probably many young women who have some good ideas based on the activities their grandfathers enjoyed.
I respect Ms. Sykes’ opinion and agree that the activities calendar for many senior living facilities are often lacking in meaningful programs or outings that appeal to outdoor-loving older men. And she provides excellent suggestions, like an outing to the shooting range or fishing at a nearby creek. Some of her suggestions are a bit extreme: she recommends providing space to rehabilitate animals or arranging visits to the local jail so the men can teach prisoners their former trades. Overall, she makes a powerful statement about the state of assisted living facilities and the need for purpose-filled activities therein, specifically for those men who have lost their wives:
“…we warehouse our elderly outdoor men, thinking a few trinkets and beads will amuse them. It is dignity robbing and demeaning. Stretching exercises at 10 a.m., bingo at 2 p.m.”
Again, I agree with Ms. Sykes on some level – I don’t know too many baby boomers who are looking forward to long days beginning with 10 a.m. stretching exercises and ending with 2 p.m. bingo. I applaud her willingness to help open a new facility that will implement her ideas. But, as a former activities director, I must defend this very special cadre of senior living employees. Stretching at 10 a.m. and bingo at 2 p.m. is not necessarily the activity director’s dream schedule. Many activities directors or recreation therapists would love to pack their days with much, much more, and many of them devote hours and hours of overtime to do just that. But it’s not an easy task.
I likened it to teaching in a one-room schoolhouse – you have residents who may range in age from 25 to 105, and they all have different abilities, interests, and skills. In my case, I was responsible for planning and executing activities for the 85+ residents in the assisted living unit and planning and executing activities for the 15+ residents in the dementia unit. It was a challenge to keep a full schedule and meet the needs of every resident.
Family members would offer input – “Mom always loved playing cards” or “Dad used to tinker with old watches.” Yet finding time to do one-on-one activities was nearly impossible in a day’s work. I always left work feeling exhausted, while at the same time, feeling like I just hadn’t done enough.
Senior living facilities usually have a limited number of activities staff: in most cases, there is one director, and maybe an occasional part-time assistant who works evenings and weekends. Rec therapists across the country rely heavily on volunteers, and we all know how precarious scheduling can be when you must rely on volunteers.
Any number of external challenges confront the activity director on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis too. Outdated computers can hinder the design of an activities calendar, limited resources might mean that you have to use the same trivia book you’ve been using for years. On a night when half the waitstaff calls out, you might have to help serve dinner. It’s a catch-all position in many ways.
No matter what the day brings, the activities director is always on the go. And you must keep a positive and upbeat attitude even when your exercise group is dozing off, or when you have to repeat the Bingo number 10 times, or when the performer you scheduled months in advance is a no-show and you have a room full of people looking to you for what’s next.
I do thank Ms. Sykes for sharing her ideas and I hope she can find a facility to support their implementation. My opinion? The majority of activity directors work their tails off to make everyone happy. And, at the end of the day, while there may have been a few outdoor-loving men who would have preferred a golfing excursion, a few Bingo fanatics who hit the quarters jackpot are feeling pretty good.
- Michelle Seitzer