Activities in Assisted Living: Not All Fun and Games

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 03 February 2009

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

There are 80 Comments about this post

  1. Thanks for your comment, Shiro. I wish you the very best as you transition to this new role! Build on your experience in the unit as you move into the position; I think just by knowing the group you’re working with already. The best place for resources? I would ask the residents and their family members/friends – create activities based on their interests, hobbies, skills, and passions, and keep things simple.


    on 18 August 2011 / 12:02 AM

  2. Also, check out this recent post I did on Best Practices for Activities Programming in Dementia Care Units: http://bit.ly/ou5Mjq. Thanks for stopping by the blog!


    on 18 August 2011 / 12:09 AM

  3. J Wright says,

    after having parents in an assisted living center for almost 5 years I just took on the job of activity director in the same center. Yes, it is exhausting but very fullfilling when you know you have made their day a little better.
    They haven’t always been these little old forgetful people, some have had very interesting lives and I love hearing about them


    on 15 November 2011 / 2:49 PM

  4. Thanks for sharing your story here! What a wonderful way to give back by taking this position at the same assisted living community where your parents resided. You’re absolutely right; listening to their stories is probably the best part of the job, if you ask me!


    on 15 November 2011 / 2:53 PM

  5. Hi
    My name is Ricky Standard and I am a musician here in the Savannah area. For the last 2 years I have been performing at Retirement and Assited Living homes here in
    Savannah. I play music oriented towards Seniors including songs from the 40′s, 50′s, 60′s. I can do instrumental music suitable for dinner hour or more upbeat tunes for listening or in some cases dancing.
    I also have experience performing for Alzheimer patients.
    I have references upon request
    My fees are $65 per hour I’m available for 1 or 2 hour performances.

    If you have an interest in my services, Please contact me at

    (912) 659-2391 or email me at


    on 29 January 2012 / 5:44 PM

  6. Lyn says,

    Hi! I really enjoyed your blog, I just recently started working as an activities director in a assisted living that also have memory care and I’m “sorta” starting from scratch and it is true that as much as we want to put more hours in the calendar…more “big happenings”, it’s hard, I’m only working 4 hours M-F, trying to put an a whole month of activities for assisted and memory care and trying to figure out who’s going to lead the activity when I’m not there is very challeging, volunteer is really a big deal and it’s even harder trying to build a volunteer which I’m doing now…phone calls after phone calls, so it doesn’t really matter how much great ideas we have but if we don’t the funds and the “staff” to excute it we just go with our Plan b, c , d…whatever that maybe. I am also “young” but with thorough activity assestment we are still able to creat activities that are “tenant/resident” centered.


    on 17 February 2012 / 3:01 PM

  7. Hi Lyn!
    Glad you enjoyed the blog! Congrats on your new position.
    The challenges you are facing (limited resources, limited hours, limited staff/volunteer coverage) are common among activity directors. These things are what make the job quite difficult, because you want to provide enjoyable, meaningful activities to span the days/weeks/months, but there is only so much one person can do and finding good volunteers is no easy task. My best to you! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out anytime.


    on 17 February 2012 / 4:51 PM

  8. Kursti Woolard says,

    Hi Michelle, I enjoyed your post. I am a volunteer at an Assisted Living in Virginia Beach, I teach a bible study every week, its an informal group participating style study. We read books from the bible and discuss life applications and their experiences and sometimes I read a best seller Christian themed book outloud to them and discuss the chapters, we just finished “Heaven is for Real” They really enjoyed it. I am self employed as a Retirement advisor so I can take time the volunteer. I have volunteered for two years at this home and I have discovered that I really like working with the seniors in this setting, It is very meaningful to me. I am exploring starting a business where I offer a simalar service to area Homes, but I dont know if the nursing homes would be willing to pay for this services I wish I could afford to volunteer 8hours a day but I have to have an income, your post mentioned limited funds for activities, I really love being with the seniors and would like to do it full time. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you


    on 23 February 2012 / 8:46 PM

  9. Hi Kursti,
    Glad you enjoyed it! How wonderful that you volunteer your time with the residents. I’m sure they enjoy spending time with you and reading/hearing/discussing the books and the Bible. Working with seniors is very rewarding and meaningful. It can also be very challenging when you work there full-time. Perhaps you could increase your volunteer hours for a time to see if you feel that this is something you could do full-time for the long-term? Generally, these types of jobs don’t pay much in terms of income, but as you know, it is very fulfilling, which is valuable in a different way. I wish you all the best in whatever you decide!


    on 24 February 2012 / 7:57 PM

  10. Sherry Miller says,

    So often these homes are just custodial.Seniors need communication, feelings of purpose, ways to socialize, and mental stimulation. I brought in two
    magicians and had a catered affair for mom’s 90th birthday and the residents who attended are still talking about it. It was a wonderful distraction from the mental and physical hurdles they have to endure!


    on 06 March 2012 / 9:44 PM

  11. I completely agree, Sherry. What a lovely thing you did for your Mom — and I’m sure her friends loved it too!


    on 07 March 2012 / 12:48 PM

  12. Valerie says,

    Hi Michelle!
    I really enjoyed reading your piece. I appreciated your neutral, yet educated responses to both sides of the argument.
    I was wondering though, if you had any suggestions for activities to do with seniors. I work in a residential assisted living home with only 3 ladies that are capable of doing activities. However, we are very limited on the kinds of activities and I know these ladies are getting bored. We have two sing along videos that we alternate every day. After that, we usually play Bingo, color, play cards, or do an exercise video.
    They cannot partake in anything that requires standing, such as dancing or upright exercise either. We have tried asking them what they like to do, but we never get a concrete response… except of course, for the lady that says “nothing.”
    I am completely at a loss and when I search for ideas on the web, most of the ideas are too physical for our residents. Please help!


    on 26 April 2012 / 11:00 PM

  13. Hi Valerie!
    Thanks so much for those kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and found it neutral in viewpoint and helpful too.
    I totally understand what you’re going through in terms of feeling limited in/bored with the same old activities (Bingo, playing cards, etc.). I agree that many of the resources on the web are “too physical” as you said. I offered a number of ideas within previous comments posted below the article…did you peruse them? I’ll share a link with you too:






    Though several of these are related to those with dementia, I think the activity ideas are still quite universal.

    Hope this helps!


    on 30 April 2012 / 5:22 PM

  14. Shelby Kline says,

    Very good article! I 100 percent agree with trying to meet the needs of all of our residents there is such a wide range of likes dislikes and abilities. I spend the majority of my budget on entertainment to come in like music programs which residents of all levels respond well too. It’s sad and exhausting the expectations that everyone places on activity directors not only do we plan coordinate the schedules, supervise and orientate volunteers, shop for supplies but there is a never ending amount of paper work that has to be done! I wish I had time to do 1 on 1 activities with every residents but the reality its barely enough time to do what’s on the activity calendar each day. I try hard but lots of times it never seems good enough!


    on 18 August 2012 / 8:22 AM

  15. Thank you, Shelby! It’s a tricky thing, trying to make everyone happy and meet the wide range of activity interests, cognitive/physical abilities, and social engagement needs of the residents you serve. You described the job well — lots of expectations, lots of responsibilities, lots to do! I agree — I always wished I could do more 1 on 1 activities, but time just never allowed it. Bringing in volunteers to do some of that is an option, but of course that requires supervision and training on your part, so it’s not always something that’s easy to add. I wish you the best in your work; I’m sure you’re making their lives brighter even though you wish you could do more!


    on 20 August 2012 / 1:24 PM

  16. Janice Santiago says,

    I am intriguied and very aware of your concerns. I also was an activity coordinator for an assisted living facility even the frustrations you have I still have unanswered questions, why! Why can’t the facility make an effort to broaden the funds and give more time to the activity aspects of our seniors who want to still enjoy life to the fullest in a different way. I believe the need to provide activities and social events for our seniors.


    on 03 September 2012 / 2:02 PM

  17. Janice, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you could relate to the post. I agree, there should be a greater effort on the part of care communities to invest in their activities programs. There are so many benefits in doing so!


    on 04 September 2012 / 10:01 AM

  18. Helen says,

    On my first day of volunteering at an assisted/independent facility, I quickly realized how many residents are capable of doing more than what is offered. I brought my map collection and some history books. Amazing how these materials sparked their interest! After listening to them, here are some of the things I will be doing next week: helping a lady write thank-you notes, reading aloud to a man, packing up my old encyclopedias for a history buff, mending a man’s clothes, continuing a grief conversation with two women and framing loose pictures for a lady.
    Money is the issue at these facilities. A part-time assistant could fulfill many of these kind of individual needs. I agree with a writer on this blog…I wish i could afford to volunteer full time.

    If you’ve never volunteered, try it. A great reward.


    on 23 September 2012 / 10:02 PM

  19. Helen, thank you SO much for this comment. You are absolutely right: they are capable of doing so much more than what is offered. All the things you are planning to do are perfect ideas, but most are one-on-one — which, unfortunately, is not something that an activity director can do very often (the community’s management team expects a calendar full of group activities, even if that’s not the best way of going about it). That’s why having self-motivated volunteers like you is so crucial for these communities; people like you are an activity director’s dream! You’re also right on about the money issue. A PT assistant could fulfill these needs, but budgets are limited. Volunteers, if they’re not as self-motivated as you, can sometimes be more work than help for an already overworked activity director, but the rewards of meaningful, engaged volunteering like you’ve described is definitely something to be encouraged. Thanks for what you’re doing for the residents you’re serving! I’m sure your visits mean the world to them!


    on 24 September 2012 / 10:21 AM

  20. Tracy says,

    Im glad there are others that feel like I do. I was appalled when I came to the facility that I am currently employed to find out that the previous activity director was using very elementary items for the activities. It was very demeaning to me to see these senior adults being thought of as elementary children. I began interviewing to find more adult interests for each of them to bring in for activities and have had much more involvement since.


    on 24 September 2012 / 2:44 PM

  21. Tracy, you are not alone! I too was always frustrated and appalled when ADs would use elementary/childrens’ items for activities. It’s very demeaning and not appropriate in any way. Thanks for taking the time to talk to the residents you work with to learn about their interests! I’m glad you’re seeing increased involvement as a result too.


    on 24 September 2012 / 2:48 PM

  22. Kimberly Maricle says,

    Starting a new position in a senior assisted living facility. Need many ideas for activities to keep them sharp both physically and mentally. All ideas are welcome and appreciated.


    on 21 October 2012 / 9:22 AM

  23. Hi Kimberly,
    Congrats on the new position! It’s great that you’re seeking ideas for activities that boost physical and mental health. Both are so important! I hope others will respond and share their ideas. You can find ideas in other blog posts on our site as well; search “activities.” Best to you in the new position!


    on 22 October 2012 / 9:51 AM

  24. Leah says,

    Even though it’s almost 4 years old now, thank you so much for this post.
    I recently started a job as an activity director in assisted living and it’s not easy at all. I spend so much time planning activities, outings, dealing with pushy entertainers, and have very few volunteers to call on so far. Don’t even get me started on suddenly becoming a bus driver, a veterinarian, a dishwasher, a PR person, and a waiter.
    There’s a core group of 3-4 people that come to everything (unless there’s alcohol involved, then I may get closer to 10) and hardly anyone wants to go on outings. Lately no one wants to come to anything and I don’t have time or patience to go door-to-door. So I set it up, wait around, and clean it up. I’m required to do a certain number of fitness activities a day, but unless its with an outside instructor (who cost money), attendance is very low.
    I’ve quickly become very frustrated and am thinking about just filling the next calendar with happy hours, cooking demonstrations, zumba, singers, and bingo.
    At any rate, this post and all the comments helped me realize I’m not alone in this :-) Thank you!


    on 29 December 2012 / 10:41 AM

  25. Roy says,

    We can fit any Activity Director’s budget, and we provide a nice change from BINGO. Have us ONCE and you’ll want to re-book !!!! http://pinterest.com/rcrombie/


    on 20 February 2013 / 1:47 PM

  26. ina watters says,

    Hi: I am a singer and I sing in Nursing Homes, Assisted Living, etc. in Westchester, NY and CT. I would like if you could get me bookings? Ina Watters


    on 27 September 2013 / 8:36 PM

  27. Thanks for your comment, Ina. Unfortunately we cannot help get you bookings. However, you can use the search function on our site to find nursing homes and assisted living communities in the areas you wish to perform (using a city/state/zip search). You’ll find contact information for each community that way, so you can reach out directly and ask for the activities department. Hope that helps!


    on 30 September 2013 / 1:52 PM

  28. Joe says,

    I’m an independent film director. My recent film “Assisted Fishing” is now available through Amazon and may be of interest to your readers.
    Assisted Fishing
    An immature goofball takes over operations at a run down Assisted Living home and offers to take the wacky residents fishing. On the boat, things go hilariously wrong and together they all learn the meaning of true friendship.

    The movie is a PG rated family comedy that is over-the-top silly but also very heartwarming.

    Movie reviewer Joe Holman says, “The film has the sensitivity not to denigrate or disrespect senior citizens while making sport of them. There is the prospect of a meaningful – and perhaps to some small degree, memorable – story that handles issues like love, friendship, and moral values very thoughtfully.
    By the end, we feel like we might just miss these characters.”

    Should this be of interest to you, I would gladly make myself available for any type of interview. A few of the actors have been outspoken about the project and would gladly contribute to any story.

    Some interview ideas:
    The struggle I faced as a filmmaker to balance the stereotypical senior humor while not being disrespectful.

    My own personal experiences of watching a loved one suffer through alzheimer’s and how that found its way into the movie.

    The senior issues that this movie touches on, including elder abuse, Alzheimer’s, poorly run facilities and how comedy is a good way to get a conversation started.

    Here’s actor Arlan Godthaab speaking about his role as Henry, an Alzheimer’s afflicted senior who has a major role in the story.

    Joe Crouch
    writer/director/producer of Assisted Fishing

    Assisted Fishing can be purchased from Amazon.


    on 16 January 2014 / 3:01 PM

  29. Joe, thanks for your comment and for telling us about your film. It sounds quite interesting! I’ll check it out when I can and let you know if we’d be interested in an interview.


    on 29 January 2014 / 4:02 PM

  30. Lori Tibbels says,

    I have seen alote of great things through the years in both nursing home settings. Also in assisted living settings. Also, in private care. When dealing with working with coworkers. The one thing I haft to say is this. Utilizing every gift that we have been given. Is essential. Is vital in the care. The rehabilitation process of the care plan. The implamentation of the care that a resident will get through out there golden years of their life. It is our responsablility to ensure that this happens. Team work is number one. I am excited to begin this new chapter as a activity director. I cant wait to get through school. I have bbbeen in the care field for over 25 years of my life. My father is almost 70. My Grandparents have passed on. Thank you for letting me share. Lori Renee Tibbels, Haskell, Texas


    on 24 February 2015 / 12:00 AM


Do you have something to say?