Designing and Running Engaging Activities for Seniors

by Rachel Musicante

One of the hardest parts of my job as an activities director at five assisted living facilities is coming up with activities that appeal to people of varying ages, cognitive abilities, and interests in the space of an hour. Each week, I visit each facility twice, and engage small groups of 4 to 12 residents in activities such as bingo, trivia, Scrabble, and card games. I would like to share with you some of the fun and creative ways that I have risen to this challenge in the three-plus years I have been an activities director at my current workplace.

One of the best ways to get all participants involved is to give each person a voice. This can be effectively accomplished through group discussions. I use online and print resources to identify topics that are likely to catch people’s interest, such as current events (especially slightly controversial ones), unusual court cases, and philosophical dilemmas. I read the question to the group, then give everyone a chance to express his or her view. Responses can range from interesting insights to off-topic musings. For one particular resident, any view he expresses ultimately meanders back to comments about beautiful women or money. No matter. The point for me is for each person to have a chance to contribute something positive to the atmosphere, to have a voice.

Another fun way I reach residents is through music. Even residents who are non-verbal or suffering from dementia respond to music, especially when it accompanies a lively ball game that really wakes people up and primes them to respond.

For a younger and more cognitively advanced group, a special version of “Name That Tune” was a great success. I wanted to pick artists that would be familiar to the members of this particular group and that would call to mind pleasant associations. I chose several singers who had participated in Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are the World” and selected songs that showcased each performer’s style. I played each song to the group and asked the participants to name the song’s title and performer. One particular participant was skilled at quickly picking up the name of the song and its singer, although all of the participants enjoyed the music and recognized at least some of the songs. After playing the individual songs, I asked the residents if they could figure out what all of the singers had in common. They got the answer, which was really gratifying. The activity was fresh and fun, and the investment of effort multiplied the satisfaction of seeing it go over well.

While I previously stated that reaching people of widely varying abilities is the most difficult part of my job, I’ve also come to appreciate that it is simultaneously the most rewarding part. My mother’s oft-stated words rings true here: “What you put in is what you get out.” The investment of effort into any endeavor makes it meaningful and therefore rewarding, and I’ve definitely found this to be true with this line of work. Once the creative juices flow, imaginative approaches that support different learning styles allow me to enthusiastically develop and implement great programs. These energizing activities are fun for the residents as participants, and they are equally rewarding for me to deliver. The joy of hitting on the right combination of preparation, consideration, and energy is the most satisfying part of being an activities director.

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