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. Estellene Ferrel says,

    excellent article!! I have been an activity director for the last 19 years and am 58 years young. we do work our butts off. I bet you were great. thanks for your article. Esty from Texas


    on 26 November 2009 / 8:35 PM

  2. Thanks for your comment, Esty! I’m glad another activity director found the article and enjoyed it. I bet you’re great at what you do too. :) Keep up the good work!


    on 04 December 2009 / 4:57 PM

  3. K.A. says,

    As someone who started her career path in long-term care in the activity department at 16 years old, THANK YOU for this article.

    I am so grateful for the people I met and the experiences I had while working in the activity department of a nursing home for over 8 years. It was never just a job to me, and learning about the residents and coming up with fun and new activities that catered to their interests was a challenge I strived to meet. I cannot say the same for some co-workers in my department who were content to rely on coloring or television watching as activities for even our most active and alert residents.

    I’m not saying this to be self-righteous or to take a dig at old co-workers, who were all ultimately good people. I just want to reiterate what you said in this article: Age and personal background have nothing to do with one’s ability to perform in this field. What matters is ambition and respect for the dignity and life experiences of the seniors served.

    Thank you for this reminder.


    on 31 December 2009 / 10:50 PM

  4. K.A., thanks so much for your thoughtful and well-written response. I understand exactly what you’re saying and agree with you completely! I’m thrilled that you found the article and found value in it. What are you working on these days?


    on 01 January 2010 / 4:54 PM

  5. K.A. says,

    Michelle, I inititally moved to social services in a nursing home, but am currently working for the state in protective services after uprooting and moving to another timezone. I stumbled across your article while doing research for an interview I have next week. I have experience working in activities in a skilled nursing facility, but I’ll be interviewing for a director position in assisted living. I was looking for resources that might help me brush up on some of the major differences I could expect. Wish me luck!


    on 02 January 2010 / 8:09 PM

  6. That’s wonderful! Let me know if I can offer any other resources that might be helpful and keep me posted on how you do…I’m sure given your background, you’ll be fantastic. Have a great 2010!


    on 04 January 2010 / 10:17 AM

  7. angel murtaugh says,

    I am a Newbee to the field. I have only been a Activities Director since October 2009. When I made this career change I was unaware of all the paper work,careplans, meetings, etc.
    My background is as a Artist and I was under the impression that I would take art into the Nursing Home.
    I was not expecting all the limited abilities.
    I am NOT complaining! I am just expressing, it is NOT ALL FUN AND GAMES! I have never worked so hard in my entire life, but I also have never felt more fulfilled. As my daughter would say “Look how long it took you to find the perfect job fit for you, Mom.”
    I love the elderly. I don’t go to work everyday, I go home. I have since learned that I can take my Art to my “Peeps” I just had to rethink what I could do.


    on 06 January 2010 / 7:34 PM

  8. Lynn says,

    Hi. I am visiting an assisted living community in the next few weeks for the first time as an Avon Representative. Did you have any suggestions on what the residents might enjoy for my first month? I thought we could discuss treating our hands and feet in the cold/winter weather. Any craft or misc. suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.


    on 08 January 2010 / 12:53 AM

  9. @Angel, thanks for your comment. Glad you’re finding your way in the activities world and finding fulfillment! The people you work with make all the hard work worthwhile.

    @Lynn, I think a discussion of treating your hands/feet in the cold/winter weather is a great first topic. Perhaps you could do aromatherapy or paraffin waxing…maybe bring in different lotions for them to try…it’s always good to bring reminiscing into it. Ask them what some of their old tricks were (or maybe their Grandma’s old tricks) for keeping their hands soft in the winter, etc. I’ve always enjoyed those types of activities, where you engage them in conversation around a topic.


    on 09 January 2010 / 8:05 PM

  10. Matt says,

    Great article! I want to do musical entertainment for seniors, and was wondering, from the perspective of an activities director, what are your top considerations when choosing entertainment for your residents?


    on 05 February 2010 / 11:49 AM

  11. Thanks for the compliment, Matt – glad you liked the piece! When I chose entertainment for the residents, the top considerations were as follows: how well they engaged with the residents (HUGELY important – no one wants someone who doesn’t look like they are enjoying themselves or doesn’t make contact with the audience), what style(s) of music they performed as per the requests/interests of the residents, how much they charged (depending on my activities budget and the value of the service), how much equipment they had (i.e. if someone needed all kinds of technical support from the facility, rather than bringing their own equipment, I might reconsider)and if they had broad appeal (for instance, would family members or friends who came to visit also enjoy the entertainment). Hope this helps!


    on 07 February 2010 / 3:21 PM

  12. Rob Walker says,

    matt…i am an entertainer, and the most important thing i have learned is…DRESS the Part! and choose music that will invoke memories and feelings in your residents…that i have learned is infinetly important!


    on 25 February 2010 / 4:55 PM

  13. Rob, you’re exactly right! Dressing the part and choosing appropriate music is super important.


    on 04 March 2010 / 9:07 PM

  14. Kathy Mayo says,

    Your comments appear very accurate from my observations. I manage a library outreach program in SW Florida and want to remind people of the resources available from their public libraries. You can put together a program on almost any topic from library resources. I especially recommend checking the oversize books area for coffee table books with big pictures on your theme; the music CDs with all types of offerings from opera and foreign language music to country and old radio shows; the DVDs for classic films, travelogues, sports, and other topics; big collections of craft and cook books; and the juvenile collection for non-fiction with great illustrations and clear explanations. Like many libraries, ours also loans reminiscense-based programming kits, provides loaner collections of large print titles, and has staff trained to help you with program materials. We’re starting a projct that will train a corps of volunteers to provide all types of intellectually stimulating programs with thoughtful discussion for elders who live in senior facilities or attend adult daycare or congregate meal sites. I’d be happy to hear from anyone who wants help in working with their local library: mayokathleen@gmail.com. Kathy Mayo


    on 05 March 2010 / 1:03 PM

  15. What a fabulous idea, Kathy! I love our local library…truly a great resource for senior discussion group materials. Thanks for your comment/suggestion to the group!


    on 06 March 2010 / 4:56 PM

  16. Stacey says,


    I loved your article. Well written and so very true! I have been an Activity Director for only two and a half years. When I first started I had no idea how much time and energy it was going to take. Our jobs is not a 9-5, but 24/7,constantly try to better our programs to meet the needs of our residents. Along with all the paper work, phone calls, recruiting volunteers, planning and participating the activities and more the job is always in motion.

    We do what we do because we love it! The rewards of seeing the smiles on the residents faces is priceless. It really does warm ones heart.

    So thanks again for the wonderful article, I enjoyed reading it!



    on 07 March 2010 / 12:53 PM

  17. Kara says,

    Michelle, thanks so much for writing this article. It, along with all of the great comments, has given me a nice perspective on how others approach the job. I am only in month two of being an Activities Director at a community that has mostly Independent residents and a handful of Assisted Living folks. My co-workers have a good 30 years experience on me and it has been very intimidating. My background is in art education and psychology.

    I have a lot of ideas of what I THINK they would like to do, but so far I can only get them to participate/ show up for about half of the scheduled activities. And even then, I’m only getting about 3-8 people. There are currently only 30 residents living there.(I have learned quickly that food and entertainment is a huge motivator.) They haven’t had an activities person for quite some time. I am wondering, what percentage generally attend events and other groups?

    I appreciate any advice you may have! Thanks again

    Thank you for sharing your experience!


    on 28 March 2010 / 5:20 PM

  18. Kara, thanks for your comment! I completely understand what you are going through. Trust me, the 30 years of experience that your co-workers have will not hinder your work. Sure, it may be intimidating, but when I was an activities director, I was fresh out of college with an English degree…so I was very green too.

    An art education/psychology background is perfect, especially the psychology piece. In my opinion, activities is a little bit of trial/error (try some of those things that you think they would like, and see how it goes), a LOT of patience/persistence, a lot of asking/listening to the residents’ ideas of what they would like to do, and, perhaps most important, allowing them to choose whether or not they would like to participate in activities, without blaming yourself for the low numbers of attendees (although 3-8 out of 30 is really good!).

    I talk to activity directors every day for a part-time position that I currently hold, and they all share the same frustrations of low participation, no matter how many years of experience they have. There are any number of reasons that people don’t come out for activities (tired, dizzy, embarrassed by health problems, shy, depressed, has other plans, would rather read in the privacy of their room, doesn’t enjoy Bingo, etc.), and most of those reasons have little or nothing to do with you or the activities you’ve planned. Yes, there were always people who preferred trivia to Bingo and vice versa, but a good activities program, in my opinion, is balanced and well-rounded, which means you might have more attendees at some events over others, but you’ll be reaching more people overall because you’ll be appealing to different interests/hobbies.

    Think about how much independence your residents have lost after moving in to an assisted living/independent living facility (no car, no private kitchen, etc.)…some people embrace it, but some want/try to remain as independent as possible. If they don’t like an activity, they should be able to say no. It’s not a reflection on you, most likely. I always gave people the choice of attending (“no” was an acceptable answer), rather than trying to persuade them to come, even if I knew they would have a good time. It’s one of the few things they can still control. You can certainly ask people why they don’t want to come when they say no, and ask for their suggestions as to what they would come out to, but if you do an activity that they suggested and they don’t come, don’t take it personally.

    You are still very new to the community there (month two, right?) and you are still getting to know the residents and what their interests are. They are still getting to know you too. It takes time to build a solid activities program, and even after time passes, you still need to be flexible and willing to change the program as your resident population changes (their needs/abilities will change, and people will come and go…that’s the nature of the field). So don’t be too hard on yourself!

    I know this is a lot of information, Kara, and I hope it makes sense. I’d be happy to share more ideas on actual activity ideas…maybe in a future blog post, since this seemed to be a popular topic?!


    on 30 March 2010 / 9:15 AM

  19. Kara says,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I am okay with the fact that many of these people would rather be left alone. I am very slowly trying to learn unique things about each of them. Fortunately for me it is a very small community and so it makes this easy. If someone mentions a play reading group, I will encourage them to read scripts with me. I think my job gives me a special opportunity to encourage the residents to try something they have wanted to do their whole lives, but always had a handful of excuses as to why they shouldn’t. Like acting, or singing in front of a group, or painting, etc. Maybe they are ready to try and write their memoirs. I like the idea that I could help fulfill at least part of their “Bucket Lists”.

    I guess the biggest pressure on me right now is that somehow administration wants me to develop a program that is so exciting and different that it compels people to live there. In other words, I am selling my program before it has even been established. I’m not a business person, I’m a people person. And when I am expected to look at my job from a marketing standpoint, it seems to cheapen it and I no longer feel genuine about what I am doing. I’m wondering if others have been faced with this same dilemma.

    I really want to thank you for your advice about group attendance and not taking it personally when people don’t show up. It has been a very valuable piece of advice and I remind myself of it daily :)

    It’s so comforting to have the opinion of someone who actually understands the pressure, the insane amount of multi-tasking, and the difference between great ideas for groups and the reality of the situation. I hope I don’t sound negative, just still finding my way. When I confided in my boss the other day that I was feeling unsupported and overwhelmed, he responded; “It’s going to get a lot worse”. Sooooo….

    I’d love to have a forum to bounce ideas around. It’s so nice to know there are others out there doing this job and loving the work, while facing the same challenges.


    on 18 April 2010 / 8:50 AM

  20. Kara – great to hear from you and I’m happy that my advice helped even a little. I really love what you said about helping them fulfill their “Bucket Lists” – that’s such a wonderful way to look at it.

    It sounds like the pressure to “sell” the program is quite a burden on you. That’s really tough, especially if you don’t think of yourself as a business person. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else responds about the issue you’re facing. I would say if you keep doing what you’re doing, the program will sell itself. That’s easier said than done, I’m sure, especially if management is pressuring you to create a program that they can show off when they’re doing marketing tours, but maybe if you go the direction of that Bucket List idea, I think you’d have something very unique and something that you can create/build on continuously…because that is something that is naturally open to change (based on who lives there and what their interests are)and it’s something that is personalized. In other words, come live at “XYZ Facility”, where your interests determine the activities calendar and not the other way around” or something like that. Just because everyone else plays trivia and Bingo doesn’t mean that everyone at your facility likes to play trivia and Bingo. Does that make sense?

    You summarized the position so well when you talked about the pressure/multi-tasking, etc. It’s hard to find your way when you’re being pulled in a million directions and getting little to no support (or just negative feedback) from leadership (as it sounds like you may be). Hang in there. If you are honoring what the residents want, you’ll be making a real difference in the quality of their lives, and that is something that no marketing plan can do. YOU are making a difference. Keep up the good work!!! :)


    on 27 April 2010 / 12:03 PM

  21. Cheryl Matthews says,

    I have found these articles so helpful and interesting. I too am just entering the Activities Director world after 20 years as an Early Childhood Director. I am excited for the change but am also nervous that it is a whole different world in many ways. Similarities are the opportunity to work with very specila individuals and their families. I would love any thoughts, suggestions, ideas … words of encouragement that I can make this transition!!!


    on 13 October 2010 / 4:03 PM

  22. Hi Cheryl,
    I’m so glad you enjoyed the articles! I love that they are still getting comments over a year later too. ;) The best activities directors are flexible and fun, and they should be fantastic listeners – ask the residents what they would enjoy and let the planning flow from there. Did you read through all the responses/comments on this post? I think I included some advice/encouragement for another inquiring new AD.

    Best wishes in your new adventure!


    on 14 October 2010 / 5:32 PM

  23. barb says,

    Wow! These letters have been great! I have been a nurse for almost 20 years, wanting to make a career change. I spoke with my ED today about becoming the AD @ our 98 bed ALF. I have been given 3 to 4 days to make a mock calendar to present with my ideas. This post has been very helpful. My big challenge will be the multiple cognitive levels, everything from A and O x3 to alert to name only.


    on 25 October 2010 / 11:56 PM

  24. Awesome, Barb!!! You will do a fantastic job, I’m sure, and if you’ve been a nurse for that many years, you understand well the people you’ll be working with. Glad you found the post helpful. You’re right, that is probably the biggest challenge, dealing with different cognitive levels. Get lots of volunteers to help so you can do more one-on-one activities! Or check into the Montessori method…we hear about it used mostly in day care settings, but it’s been quite effective in dementia care too. Cameron Camp with the Myers Research Institute has done extensive work around this subject. I’ve heard him speak and he’s amazing.


    on 28 October 2010 / 9:03 AM

  25. Erin H Krzysik says,

    I am fresh meat when in terms of being an Activities Director. We are a small facility and I am having a difficult time finding volunteers to come and help.
    However, I would suggest to anyone to get the local school bands involved. I had the local High school Jazz band come for a Halloween party and it was wonderful. We also have a local Girl Scout Troop that comes to our facility to have their weekly meetings. The residents absolutely love this.
    I am having difficulty with finding things for daily activities…. does anyone have suggestions?


    on 30 October 2010 / 2:39 AM

  26. Hi Erin!
    Finding volunteers is always a difficult task, regardless of how long you’ve been on the job. Fantastic idea on the local school bands though – that is always a win-win (as well as Girl Scout troops).
    My suggestions for daily activities? Keep it simple…keep it close to what the residents used to do for daily activities perhaps (and ask for their feedback): trivia, Bingo, board games, Bridge/other card games, baking/cooking, Travel programs/chats, computer classes, Current Events & coffee, afternoon tea, etc. Hope that helps!


    on 03 November 2010 / 4:45 PM

  27. Katrina Fairchild says,

    I happened by chance on this blog and it’s been WONDERFUL to read all this — so helpful! I’m currently a student of horticultural therapy and activity coordinator (different schools). I’d like to volunteer right now with horticultural activities to assisted-living, retirement, and nursing home facilities. What is the best approach to getting this information to activity directors? I’ve tried a couple of places several times, but even though they expressed excitement to my offer, they keep postponing me. Based on reading the comments in this blog, seems the activity directors should be all over my desire to volunteer.


    on 04 December 2010 / 2:15 PM

  28. Katrina, I am so glad you happened to find this blog/discussion thread, and that it’s been helpful! I am amazed that a post I wrote in February 2009 is still getting comments. In terms of getting the info to activity directors, persistence is key. Activity directors are SUPER busy, which is why they love volunteer help – the only problem is, getting a volunteer set up involves work, and their time is so limited. Don’t give up! Keep trying, stop by if you can and meet them in person, and perhaps propose a schedule of hours you could come in, outlining what you would do in that time frame. If you do as much legwork in advance as possible, it will make it easier for the AD to plug you right in. Have fun and let us know how it goes!


    on 06 December 2010 / 12:49 PM

  29. Smish says,

    I am so happy to have found this blog. I am somewhat new to Assisted Living Activities. I have volunteered or done temporary work assignments in an amazing home for the last 3 years. This home has a little over 100 apartments, some occupied by couples so we have about 110 residents. I am now a regular employee who started part-time 10-15 hours a week and am finding I am working more and more 30 hour weeks due to a staffing change. (No Director) Can anybody tell me how many employees should be in an Activities Dept. of a “wealthy” home of this size? I understand some of the earlier comments about how awesome it is to go to work. I also understand the comment about a Marketing Department putting pressure on Activities to help sell the home.


    on 16 December 2010 / 9:25 AM

  30. Glad you found the blog too! It seems to have been very helpful for many people, both those who are new to activities and to those veterans who needed some fresh ideas and inspiration. Congrats on transitioning from volunteer to employee! It’s a transition I went through as well. I volunteered for 3 years at the home where I became an employee in 2001. I am not surprised that you are working so many hours despite your part-time status. It was that way for me as well, and staffing changes are unfortunately quite frequent in most assisted living facilities, even those who have a solid budget to hire adequate staff. It is the nature of the business. One of the best facilities I ever worked at was in Maryland, where there was a team of 4 staff (one programs director, one communications coordinator to do the newsletters, posters, etc. – that was my job – one fitness/wellness director and an assistant for her) serving the independent living unit. In the assisted living unit (about 40-50 residents), there was one full-time activities director and one part-time assistant. That seemed to work very well. If you can find committed volunteers to count on for help with regular programming, that could relieve the burden somewhat in terms of the staffing shortage. It also helps to engage ALL staff members to help (culinary, maintenance, nursing, etc.), teaching them the importance of activity programming and ways they can be involved. Best to you in this transition!


    on 20 December 2010 / 12:36 PM

  31. Smish says,

    Michelle: Thanks so much for your response. Funny thing, yesterday when I went in, I was approached about being somewhat of a communications coordinator for both Activities and Marketing. It seems as if most of the employees there are deathly afraid of a computer. My favorite thing is being with the residents so I don’t know how I feel about it but I am not afraid of the computer and I don’t have a lot of problems doing flyers and calendars and newsletters. This community had the same Activities Director for close to 11 years. She retired last March and the transition has been tough for some. The previous activities staff kind of sabotaged the new Director as far as volunteers (among other things). This was one of the reasons the new gal just left. Anyway, still trying to figure out how I can help them the most.


    on 21 December 2010 / 8:24 AM

  32. Smish says,

    Michelle: I also wanted to ask, what were some of your most favorite and most successful activities? The things I like to do allow me to have time to get to know their feelings and thoughts. I like to have time to be with them and not just manage them. Have you ever done a book club and if so, how did you do it? (Did you meet once a week? Did you take a survey and let them pick out the books?) What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started out working in a home?
    Thanks in advance for all of your help. It is nice to have someone I can ask questions to. There seems to be a lot of office politics so I don’t discuss a lot with people there.



    on 21 December 2010 / 8:37 AM

  33. That is ironic! I think you’re right – many employees seem to be uncomfortable with using the computer to design in-house communications materials. I understand what you’re saying though – you don’t mind doing the calendars, etc. but if it takes time away from being with the residents, you’re not sure what to think re: doing that extra work/taking on the responsibility. At Mercy Ridge, we had a committee of resident volunteers who helped me collate, assemble, and stuff the mailboxes with the newsletter/calendar each month, so that was a fun way of integrating the work with resident interaction. Plus, the ladies & gents who participated loved to help, and I loved how quick and easy that daunting task became with their assistance!

    I also totally understand the politics you explained, in terms of losing a 11+ year employee/sabotaging the new gal. I’m afraid that kind of thing happens a lot. Hang in there! I’d be happy to keep in touch and help you in any way I can.


    on 21 December 2010 / 2:26 PM

  34. I would say that my favorite activities involved any kind of reminiscing…whether it was trivia (during which some questions naturally led into discussions of other things, like remembering where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot, etc.), current events, or a simple chat about holiday traditions or favorite vacation memories, etc. Sing-a-longs were fun too because music has a profound impact on people no matter what their age or impairment, and it was always inspiring and encouraging to see people with advanced Alzheimer’s enjoying a favorite tune from days gone by. I think we are very much alike in our philosophy of what makes a good activity – you’re absolutely right that you need to get to know them/their feelings/thoughts, and that will guide what activities will work best (and those discussions are typically very enjoyable, as you said!). And you’re also right about taking time to be with them, not just manage them. That is a mistake that many overzealous ADs make. I think we tried a book club but didn’t have much success, however, I think it’s a great idea. Sometimes the success depends on the members of the group and it may have been that we just didn’t have a group that wanted to commit to something like that, but I definitely think you should give it a try. Meeting once a week would probably be good to keep them motivated to finish the book – so would you do one chapter a week, maybe? I would say that it should be broken down in small segments for discussion, so that no one is overwhelmed and gives up quickly. I am happy to answer these questions for you. Sometimes it’s better to talk to someone who’s “been there, done that” and isn’t involved in the politics of the community you’re at – that makes complete sense. In terms of what do I know now that I wish I had known…probably that the simplest activities that involve the least amount of planning and effort are often the best. Don’t burn out by doing a lot of labor-intensive activities that only a few attend. Focus on spending time with the residents, as you are already doing, and the rest will follow.


    on 21 December 2010 / 2:35 PM

  35. Smish says,

    Michelle: My family and I started at this home doing board game night. Through that we developed great relationships. I also gave free manicures for a few years. I feel like I was spoiled starting out that way because I got to really get to know the residents I was with and develop friendships. I am trying to start a latch hook club where we come together once a week and latch some rugs but we also sit there and get caught up on each other’s lives. That was one of my motivations for the book club. I figured I could draw them out a little just talking about characters but I am seeing a few challenges with doing it and you kind of confirmed this. I would want them to read at least one chapter a week. I wanted to come in costume as well as bring props from the book each week. We could discuss our reading over some snacks. How do you feel about adding popular television show times to the calendar just to make it look full? (Marketing suggestion)
    I was asked several times to take the full-time Director position. I don’t want full-time right now so it really isn’t an option. They are currently interviewing for the Director’s position so I have no idea what we will get. Yesterday I was asked to sit in on interviewing my potential supervisor. Wow! Awkward! We have one other person who works full-time in activities. She is the most beautiful, hard working, classy, genuine person you could meet.The problem there is that she doesn’t speak English very well. I have offered her ESL classes because I have taught ESL at my church and I have a few great contacts. We may be starting that at the beginning of the year but that is just another thing I am suppose to fit into my 15-20 hours I spend at the home. Everyday is an adventure. Do you have any thoughts?


    on 22 December 2010 / 8:51 AM

  36. It sounds like the way you started out at that facility (doing board games, manicures, etc.) was perfect! Although working there full-time/part-time is a whole different ball game, you have such an advantage in that you had the opportunity to get to know the residents before becoming an employee. I recommend continuing those activities (latch hook club, etc.) that you started so that you can keep your finger on the pulse of what the residents are interested in/how they’re feeling. The friendships you’re developing will help build the support you need to introduce new programs. I like your ideas for the book club (coming in costume, snacks, etc.) – I say go for it! If they don’t enjoy it, they’ll let you know. That’s one thing about working so closely with the residents. Even if they don’t tell you in so many words that they don’t like it, their body language (and whether or not they show up) will speak volumes, as I’m sure you know.

    I was never a big fan of putting things on the calendar that weren’t truly “planned” activities, especially if it was just for the purpose of making the calendar look full – I feel that it’s misleading. I am not surprised that the Marketing Dept. suggested it though. ;) If the residents want to watch popular TV shows, they can do so independently. I also think having a full calendar/high attendance rates is not an accurate measurement of the success of your programming. Some residents can keep themselves more than occupied in their apartments (reading, writing, computers, games, visitors, etc.) and never come out for a single “planned” activity, and they are still happy and fulfilled. I know it’s difficult for marketing directors to understand, but the most important thing is not how busy the calendar is. It’s most important that the residents feel at home and enjoy a high quality of life – which is different for every resident and for some, it has nothing to do with the activities calendar.

    Anyway, I have been in those awkward interview situations too – it’s common in this field! But if you feel strongly that you don’t want the FT position right now, then stick to what you’re doing. That is fine! I hope you get a good supervisor. Who you work with/for makes a big difference in any job, as you know, so I hope it’s someone you can mesh with.

    You said it perfectly: every day is an adventure. Keep up the good work, and keep me posted on how things go with the book club and your co-worker/supervisor situation. Have a happy & healthy New Year!


    on 31 December 2010 / 3:58 PM

  37. Smish says,

    They hired a new Director and so far I am really excited about her. I am looking forward to learning from her as well. She is coming from a different community that was a lot smaller but she is really really smart and really energetic so I think she will be good. I am actually really excited that the residents are getting her. I (of course) love the residents and I think she will take good care of them.
    It looks like management wants me to split my hours between Activities and Marketing now. The Marketing Director went in and asked the ED if she could have me. I guess I don’t care. I would rather be with the residents all of the time but I still love being at the home.
    Thanks again for all of your encouragement and opinions. You have helped me a lot.


    on 04 January 2011 / 10:10 AM

  38. Fantastic news! I’m glad that you approve of the new director, and that she seems to be a good fit/choice for the community. Keep me posted on how things go, especially with your potential change in responsibilities/splitting of hours. Glad that our correspondence has been helpful…I’ve enjoyed “chatting” with you!


    on 05 January 2011 / 12:43 PM

  39. Sarie says,

    Hey everyone! This blog seems very helpful! I’ve worked in activities in a Nursing home for 4 years and I’m looking to become an Activity Director in an assisted living facility. I have 4 years experience and an Associates degree. I’m currently making $15 per hour as an assistant, can anyone tell me the average wages/salary for Activity Directors in assisted living facility? Any info will help, thanks :-)

    PS.. if you haven’t tried Chair Yoga yet I highly recommend it! both high and low functioning patients love it and it helps them use the muscles you normally wouldn’t exercise in a morning mobility group!


    on 08 February 2011 / 9:17 PM

  40. Hi Sarie!
    Thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m glad you found this post helpful! It’s been awhile since I served in that role, so it’s hard to know what current wages/salary would be. I also think a lot of it depends on where you are, but I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of $25K to $40K? What do others think?

    Chair yoga sounds like a perfect fit. Great idea – thanks for sharing it. :)

    Keep us posted on the job search!


    on 09 February 2011 / 10:29 AM

  41. Lou says,

    I recently interviewed for a job as Activity Director in an Assisted Living Home. What I found was dismal. No activities whatsoever, 32 residents–many just sitting…and then I’m told it pays $9.75/hr. part time. I’m fine with part time–but may I please have some comments on why I should think this is a normal pay scale?


    on 28 February 2011 / 7:02 PM

  42. Hi there, Lou!
    Thanks for stopping by the blog. I am not surprised to hear this but it is truly unfortunate…the budget for activities in most assisted living homes is truly dismal in comparison to budgets for other things, especially given the importance of quality of life for the residents after move-in day. I do know that some homes vary in terms of pay scales…I would say that $9.75 is on the low end, but it might just depend on where you are (assisted living ranges from $1000-$6000 a month from state to state) and how the organization is set up/funded (private pay, Medicare, Social Security, non-profit vs. for-profit, etc.). Were benefits included, even though it was part-time? When I worked for assisted living communities, I received low pay but had excellent benefits.


    on 01 March 2011 / 1:04 PM

  43. Janie says,

    Hello, I have worked in one assisted living answering telephones and doing arts and crafts (to help out the activity director) for the pass several years, I am now going to work in a new assisted living, I will be the activity director, I have enjoyed reading this blog,it has given me a good insight in being the activity director, I love working with older people, they appreciated the arts and crafts,

    I have gottten so many ideas that I am so excited about my new position.


    on 07 March 2011 / 2:10 PM

  44. Janie, that is great news! First of all, congrats on your new position, and second of all, I’m happy to hear that this blog provided insights and ideas for you as you’re getting started. Keep us posted!


    on 08 March 2011 / 12:43 PM

  45. Ashlyn Brown says,

    Hi Michelle, I really like the honesty of this article. I am 20 years old and definitely what some would call on “a path to success”. I have 5 years of administrative experience and 3 of these were spent as an Assistant Event Coordinator. I have recently been considered for a Activities Director position in Dallas,TX and I am almost certain that I have the job. The interviewing manager made it very clear to me that she wanted to incorporate more upbeat activities for the residents other than things like “Bingo and trips to Kroger”… I do have a strong understanding and passion for the elderly as it is, which is why I would like to choose this as a career field. My grandparents raised me until the time I was 16 and my grandmother is now in a dementia/alzheimers care facility.

    Do you have any suggestions or advice for someone in my position?

    Thank you!


    on 24 March 2011 / 9:14 AM

  46. Hi Ashlyn,
    Thanks so much! I appreciate that. It does sound like you’re on an exciting path, and one similar to mine! Keep me posted on the job! What a wonderful thing that you are pursuing your passion for the elderly through this career field, especially given the strong influence of your grandparents on your life. I’m sorry to hear that your grandmother has Alzheimer’s/dementia. If you read some of my other posts on this site, you’ll learn that I lost my beloved grandfather to Alzheimer’s in 2009. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.

    I would definitely suggest you read through all the comments on this blog post, as I gave lots of advice/suggestions (as did other folks who commented) for someone in your position. Let me know if you have other questions after you’ve reviewed them and I’d be happy to help.


    on 24 March 2011 / 11:44 AM

  47. ann says,

    i have been volunteering for several months at a care facility.in the activities dep. the most frustrating part of organizing programs is that some of the cna’s dont try to help get residents to the activities.or they are understaffed so difficult to help. the residents just want to know that someone loves them. Give the residents a positive quality of life towards the end of their lives.. someday we may be in their situation….


    on 17 August 2011 / 12:47 AM

  48. Absolutely, Ann. That was something I struggled with quite often. And I agree with what you’re saying…so important to give them positive quality of life! Good perspective.


    on 17 August 2011 / 4:19 PM

  49. Thanks for your comment!


    on 17 August 2011 / 4:20 PM

  50. Shiro says,

    I have to say it so refreshing to read all this wonderful comments. My situation’s pretty much like alot of others with a different twist. Am transitioning from a CNA position on a Dementia Unit to an Activities Assistant position on the very same unit. My biggest worry is coming up with activities for this special kind of group without ‘burning out’. Is there somewhere in particular you get your resources from to keep up with entertaining and involving the residents? Thanks.


    on 17 August 2011 / 8:09 PM


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