Why Activity Directors Need Respite Care

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 15 March 2011

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about activities in assisted living. The post took on a life of its own, with 44 comments and counting…

Clearly the topic of meaningful, age-appropriate activities for residents in assisted living communities (or any senior living community, for that matter) is one that provokes much discussion. New and seasoned activity professionals from across the country weighed in; they asked questions, sought advice, and shared opinions and experiences. It’s been a great discussion over the years.

I wanted to revisit this topic and share some new insights, hopefully leading to another lively discussion. Thanks to all of you who stopped by the original post and left comments!

Let me begin by saying how absolutely invaluable a quality activity professional/staff is to a senior living community. This person/team is on the go just about all the time: talking to residents and their visiting family and friends, encouraging participation from the entire community for events large and small, working closely with direct care staff and management, updating bulletin boards and seasonal decorations, writing & delivering birthday cards, calling local theaters and museums to purchase tickets and passes, recruiting and supervising volunteers, calling Bingo, getting feedback on activity calendars & programs, changing items in display cases, making endless trips to Party City, and the list goes on. It’s not a desk job by any means. It’s a hands-on job that is rewarding and exhausting, challenging and inspiring, fun and frustrating – and each day’s schedule is quite unpredictable, no matter what the activity calendar says. Every day is an adventure.

But, for those who are in the job for the right reasons – that is, to bring joy and meaning to the lives of those in the spectrum of senior living settings – well, the job gives more than it takes. Take it from someone who has been there. While the stress of moving chairs/tables, stringing lights, filling up helium balloons, or fiddling with AV equipment added a few grey hairs, the deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction I had after a successful program or event was always worthwhile, especially when I’d scan the room and see the smiles of those who were clearly enjoying themselves, or when people stopped me in the hall the next day to say how much fun they had at the party.

You will have your share of complaints to deal with too, even after a successful event. A thick skin is required if you want to enjoy longevity in this line of work.

Another requirement?  Time to recharge, to rest and renew.

We talk about caregiver burnout in care-at-home settings, but the same thing can happen to overworked professionals in senior living communities.  Certainly direct care workers like the nursing staff and nurse aides, who are doing much of the work that an at-home caregiver would, need this time of respite to prevent burnout, but I would argue that full-time activities personnel who engage directly with the residents need this respite too.

Here are a few hints for integrating rest and respite into your hectic days as activities professionals:

  1. In the days following a big event, keep the schedule light and choose programs that involve minimal prep.
  2. Balance the calendar in a way that benefits the residents AND you. When choosing programs, don’t lump all the big stuff together (i.e. concerts, parties, picnics, day trips). Spread these activities out over the course of the month so that you have time to prepare – and recover. Your audience will appreciate that too.
  3. Give yourself adequate time in the morning to plan and prepare before diving in to the first activity.
  4. Take your lunch break. And it doesn’t count if you’re sitting at your desk with a peanut butter sandwich in hand, working on the activities calendar at the same time. Leave the campus now and then if you can, take a walk, go to the break room, or at least close your office door and put the computer in sleep mode.
  5. Watch your overtime…and not just the paid kind. Many activities professionals are guilty of either bringing work home or staying way past the punch-out time (and sometimes both). There will certainly be days that warrant these extra hours, but don’t let it become a habit, and be sure to allot some down-time elsewhere to account for your additional efforts.
  6. Take advantage of volunteers. Yes, it involves a bit more work for you on the front-end to train, recruit, and supervise, but eventually, you will reap the benefits if you find a solid & dependable corps of volunteers.
  7. Go for quality, not quantity. Does it look good when the calendar is jam-packed with stuff to do? Sure, but it means diddly-squat if you’re a walking zombie and only a handful of people show up.
  8. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it. Seems simple enough, but it’s harder than it sounds. If no one in your community enjoys Bingo, don’t put it on the calendar, no matter what anyone else says.
  9. Talk to your boss. Perhaps management staff would consider adding a part-time activities assistant if you mentioned that you need help. Let them know your needs so that they can better assist you.
  10. Get the residents involved. Maybe they don’t choose to attend every program you offer, but they would certainly love to collate newsletters and calendars like they used to do when they volunteered for churches/community organizations. Let them help!

Take care of yourself so that you can continue to provide the entertainment and enrichment that your senior living community thrives on… and thanks for the great work you do!

-Michelle Seitzer

There are 6 Comments about this post

  1. Coleen Kenny says,

    Great article; I will pass it on to the ADs at the nursing home and assisted livings I attend!


    on 16 March 2011 / 1:58 PM

  2. Thanks, Coleen, for passing it on! I appreciate that, and I’m glad to hear that you found the article helpful. If you can, let me know what the response is from those who receive a copy of it.


    on 17 March 2011 / 9:20 AM

  3. Hi Michelle-

    As an independent contractor who has chosen to work with Seniors living in retirement communities- I see Activity Directors who are over worked and overwhelmed and high turn-over as a result. From driving the van to organizing big parties every month- these people do it all.

    That’s why I try to be of assistance. By providing a variety of quality activities to help fill in the gaps, they do not have to be an expert at absolutely everything.

    From Garden Therapy classes. Art classes, Music Therapy to Wine Tastings- I provide appropriate activities for seniors in Memory Care to very Independent Seniors. Unlike the AD- I can walk away from the politics and stress of the facility at the end of my class- but have provided a valuable service to both staff and residents while there.

    Activity Directors should take advantage of dependable contractors like myself to help fill in the gaps. I spend hours every day planning new activities- and those hours are not billed for- plus the AD does not have to do the work at home or after hours to prepare for my activities.

    I know that budgets are tight these days- but getting help is worth the money both in terms of preventing burn-out within the staff, but also as a marketing tool as well. And it seems that the first cuts are always made in Activities and Marketing because management sees those areas as non essential. It would be great to see a paradigm change in that area as well.

    Thanks for the discussion! Please check out my blog and tutorials about Activities for Seniors at http://elderlife.blogspot.com. This is a subject near and dear to my heart!

    Stephane McGrady
    Elder Life Engagement


    on 18 March 2011 / 10:46 AM

  4. Hi Stephane,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like you do provide a very valuable service!

    You’re absolutely right…ADs are overworked/overwhelmed often. In my days in the position, I drove the van on many occasions, sometimes even taking residents to medical appointments (not on the activities calendar, of course)!

    I agree that a paradigm shift is definitely needed in terms of the view that Activities/Marketing are “non-essential” areas for investment. Hope we see that change coming soon!

    Thanks for sharing the info about your services. I will definitely check out your blog and appreciate your comments/insights.

    Keep up the great work!


    on 21 March 2011 / 11:38 AM

  5. I enjoyed reading all of the comments and the post. I, too worked as an activity director and for me this one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had the pleasure of working. In my NEW up and coming community I want to also focus on the activities provided and create a fun, exciting, rewarding and life long experience for the residents and the active adults. Keeping your mind, body, and soul active and entertained I feel is key to a life “Well Lived.” Thank you for the post


    on 13 September 2011 / 5:03 AM

  6. Glad you enjoyed the post and comments, Victoria! It is such a rewarding job, isn’t it? It sounds like you have a great plan for focusing activities planning in your new community. Best to you as you get started there! I agree with your philosophy too. You’re welcome; thanks for stopping by the blog!


    on 13 September 2011 / 9:15 AM


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