The Importance of Recreation in Long Term Care

When an elderly person or his/her family has to face the issue of LTC placement, it is usually because they cannot be looked after in their present environment. They may be dealing with the challenges of high-risk behaviours such as wandering or they are having difficulties with their activities of daily living (ADL) including meal preparation or bathing. While all of these are good reason to seek LTC, what we never give thought to is the quality of life for the person entering LTC.

People understand that Alzheimer Disease (AD) and related dementias can affect a person's life when they lead to incontinence, missed appointments, issues with balance and falls, difficulty managing medications, and even malnourishment. What we fail to realize is that AD also causes problems accessing and participating in leisure pursuits. A person who has AD may become forgetful or depressed such that they are no longer able to participate in things that they once found enjoyable. As the disease progresses, people find deficits in their cognitive skills (i.e. memory and thinking) which prevent them from taking part in the activities they used to previously. Many people are unable to initiate social interactions, so they sit for hours on end not engaging in conversation with anyone. All of this provides for a bleak existence.

People mistakenly think that leisure and recreational interests are not important; that disease management is really what a person with AD needs. While it is correct that without proper medication and care a person may die, it is also true that without leisure interests a person fails to live. The human being is by its very nature a social creature, and one that is designed to be continuously doing things. We have a need to engage in fulfilling roles (i.e. mother, grandmother, volunteer, employee, student, etc.), and we need the opportunity to engage in activities that are purposeful and meaningful to us, whether it's reading, knitting, playing ball, meeting friends for coffee, painting, or surfing the net.

Through the use of carefully chosen and adapted therapeutic activities by the Recreationist, a person with dementia may manage the difficulties and depression associated with the illness. Moreover, by successfully engaging in arts and crafts, exercise, singing and interactions with children or pets, they may improve their mood, physical function and self-esteem. And, this will lead to an improved quality of life.

You may ask "how does the Recreationist know what activities a person likes/dislikes, and what they are able/unable to do?". A good Recreationist is one who is trained in assessing a person's abilities, and more importantly, trained in supporting a person with limitations to participate in activities of interest to them. Through the use of adaptive devices and activities, the Recreationist can help the person meet the pre-determined goals. And, instead of just surviving their 'golden years' in LTC, they will thrive.

As Robert Butler, M.D. once said "a person doesn't stop playing because they grow old…a person grows old because they stop playing".