What is Recreation Therapy?

What is Recreation Therapy? By Heather Wyffels, Life Enrichment Coordinator at St. Ann’s Community.

Recreation therapy gives seniors daily opportunities to participate in meaningful activities that promote:

• mental health
• physical well-being
• cognitive function
• autonomy
• sense of joy and connectedness

Almost any leisure activity can qualify as recreation therapy, but it’s not just fun and games. Each activity must include attainable and measurable goals. Bingo, for example, is a fun and popular game but it also addresses cognitive abilities, hand/eye coordination, concentration and fine motor skills. Playing cards and casino-style games exercises decision-making skills, promotes socialization, and and provides sensory

A Professional Approach

New York state mandates all senior living communities to provide recreation therapy and adhere to state standards. A large organization such as St. Ann’s Community, for example, employs full-time recreation therapists — known as life enrichment advocates — who work with residents across the continuum of care, from independent living to skilled nursing. Our life enrichment advocates are professionals with a four-year college degree in recreation therapy or a related field. Some also have National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification, an advanced credential.

Part of the Family

Recreation therapists develop unique, personal relationships with residents and their families. This helps them plan activities that reflect residents’ interests and hobbies. At St. Ann’s, for example, we’re working with our residents to plan a fashion show, an idea they came up with. We’ve also helped a resident plan a St. Joseph’s table for the neighbors on her floor, an activity based on her love of food and her Catholic faith. Due to the nature of their work and because they provide a different kind of care, recreation therapists often have very close relationships with residents and family members and are trusted as if they are part of
the family. This is especially helpful when working with residents who need extra encouragement to join activities and embrace their potential.

What To Look For

Here are some other features to look for when touring a senior living community:

• Variety: Euchre games, art projects, exercise classes and gardening are among the activities residents look forward to at St. Ann’s Community. They also attend sporting events, movies, picnics, concerts and lunch trips.

• Accommodations: A good recreation therapy program provides adaptive technology and specialized equipment to ensure that everyone can participate regardless of physical ability.

• Connections: Group activities provide a sense of belonging and give residents the opportunity to be social, get to know others, and develop friendships.

• Autonomy: Sometimes “nothing” is the right answer when asked, “What do you want to do today?” Seniors have the right to assert their independence and pass on activities every now and then.

Clinical Detectives

In addition to creating engaging activities for seniors, recreation therapists often detect little changes in a person before they become significant. As a result, they can alert the resident’s care team to potential health issues that can be addressed early. Recreation therapists often co-treat with physical, occupational, speech, and music therapists to help seniors stay healthy and achieve clinical goals.

A Family Affair

Recreation therapists encourage families to participate in activities with their loved ones. It’s an easy way to bring joy to your loved one’s day and to support their well-being. It’s also an opportunity to raise any concerns about your loved one’s level of engagement or changes in behavior. Senior living communities should be places where people continue to grow. Across the continuum of care, recreation therapy helps residents stay active and blossom in their senior years.


Heather Wyffels is Life Enrichment Coordinator at St. Ann’s Community, a senior community offering a full continuum of
care in Rochester. Contact her at hwyffels@ MyStAnns.com

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