Are Wii ready for the baby boomers?

Activities directors are facing the biggest challenge of their careers—accommodating the influx of multitudes of baby boomers into LTC settings. It’s not just the numbers but the characteristics of this generation that will force changes to established patterns. 

Boomers are not like their parents or their grandparents. The accepted wisdom is that those born between 1946 and 1964 are typically better educated, more acquisitive, more technologically aware, more active physically and have shorter attention spans and higher expectations than previous generations. In short, boomers are more demanding than the relatively docile and mostly compliant populations that have historically dominated LTC settings. 

“Boomers have always been independent in their choices, and when they want something, they want it now,” says Alisa Tagg, ACC, AC-BC, CDP, a Henderson, Nev.-based consultant who works predominantly with those 55 years and older. “Activity professionals will need to have readily available items that will keep the residents satisfied. Program options such as Internet and computer access, video game programming, movies, music, books/magazines and puzzles will be helpful.”

But not just any video games (Wii skiing instead of solitaire), or music (more Beatles than Lawrence Welk), or movies (Clooney not Grant and R ratings, not PG).


“Small group activities have replaced the majority of larger ones,” notes Myrtle A. Klauer, AP-BC, ADC, CAP, director of resident services for the Chicago-based Illinois Council on Long-Term Care, and secretary/treasurer for the National Association of Activity Professionals (NAAP), headquartered in Sevierville, Tenn. Klauer sees this as a continuing trend.

“Residents of the future will demand access to wireless connections for their laptops and iPads,” says Klauer. “They will want access to satellite or cable on their televisions. They will want activities that challenge their minds and educate them. They will want to stay connected to their communities and the clubs/churches they belonged to. And, she adds, “They are not going to want to play bingo; they will want to go to the casino to gamble.”

Michele Nolta, owner of Recreation Therapy Consultants (RTC), San Diego, describes “an interesting shift in programming that seems to be evolving under our feet.” As she sees it, residents who have lived in retirement communities and nursing homes for five or 10 years are still content with familiar sing-a-longs, bingo games and holiday parties that have typified programming for the past 30 years. Meanwhile, baby boomers—some of whom have already arrived for short rehab stays, typically while recovering from hip replacements or other surgeries—don’t even want to be called residents. They see themselves as patients, and their motivation is not to make a new life in a new setting, but to get well and get out as fast as they can. Alternative pain therapies and activities that enhance progress in occupational and physical therapy are popular with these newcomers.

“We’re not ‘bingo bunnies’ anymore,” says Diane Mockbee, BS, AC-BC, ACC, director of operationsfor the NAAP Credentialing Center (NAAPCC), Carlsbad, Calif. “That went out with passage of the Omnibus Reconciliation Act (OBRA) in 1987.” OBRA created a set of minimum national standards to guard the rights of those living in long-term care. This code placed new emphasis on a resident’s quality of life, as well as quality of care.

In addition to her role with NAAPCC, Mockbee is activity director at Palm Valley Rehab & Care Center, a 170-bed long-term/short-term rehab residence in Goodyear, Ariz., as well as at a sister facility, Ridgecrest Healthcare in Phoenix. Mockbee reports that, under OBRA, activities professionals began to be recognized as full partners on the LTC interdisciplinaryteam. Today, she says, “Our suggestions, comments and knowledge are oftentimes very much appreciated. Back in the 1980s, we truly had no voice and very little respect.”


Sources for this article are in agreement about what will be needed to keep baby boomers happy—wi-fi communications, flat screen TVs (in each room, not just the communal area), current-release CDs and DVDs, electronic readers, sophisticated computer game systems like Wii, enough laptops and tablets to go around (although this may be ameliorated by the number of residents who bring in their own communications devices), more outings, better (i.e. more expensive) lecturers and live entertainers, and more. However, cost is a consideration.

“Technology costs a lot,” says Debbie Bouknight, BS, AC-BC, CDP, Lexington Medical Center Extended Care, S.C. “It could be difficult for many communities if they do not have the funding available. It will be harder for them to meet the needs if they cannot provide the programming and the technology the baby boomers may desire.”

“Sheer numbers alone will tax the LTC system,” says Cindy Wagner, associate director, Shalom Cares, Aurora, Colo. “I think boomers are going to have a tremendous impact on public recreation centers since they will expect more. Even in their 80s, they will want to go skiing and hiking. They’re not going to settle for knitting circles and potlucks. And if by the time they get to us, actual skiing is no longer an option, we’ll have to improvise with virtual skiing, lectures from Olympic skiers, and YouTube videos of extreme skiers.”  

Wagner’s colleague, Brenda Scott, the event coordinator for Shalom Cares, agrees that boomers will want to continue to do it all. “They won’t want to miss a thing,” she says. In fact, if overall LTC populations grow sufficiently large and activity groups continue to get smaller—as many sources are predicting—Scott says she can envision the same activity being repeated multiple times throughout the day or week in order to avoid conflicts and still accommodate everyone who is interested. This, too, will increase costs.

Melissa Dixon suggests that costs may stay about the same. Dixon works as activity director and music therapist at Rusk County Nursing Home, Ladysmith, Wis. She says, “Most residents will come to the nursing home with their own electronic devices—and already knowing how to use them. So the activity department should not have to purchase many of these items and won’t need to provide much training or technical help.”

Meanwhile, she cautions, boomers will spend more time alone in their rooms (the Facebook effect), so rooms will need to be large and comfortable, with amenities such as flat screen TVs, refrigerators, microwaves, comfortable beds that are bigger than twin size, private bathrooms and quality bath and body products. Dixon says, “We will need to meet the needs of these residents because if we don’t they won’t hesitate to find another facility that will.”

Mary Anne Favale, LPN, ACC, AC-BC, a self-employed activities consultant in Ormond Beach, Fla., echoes the notion that baby boomers are used to getting their way and have the service they demand. “They are going to be younger, more vocal and demand changes, and yes, disrupt the mainstream,” she predicts.

“They are very different thinkers, who do not follow the normal routines and rules,” Favale continues. When they reach large numbers in any given facility, they may band together. Many will have had careers in which they were used to giving orders more often they had to take them. More than a few will have some kind of dementia from smoking pot, drinking or abusing drugs.

Another element that must be factored into the cost/service equation is the impact of the depressed economy on LTC budgets. Susan Rauch, NAAP’s president, and one of the most prominent activity professionals in the country, was herself an unlikely victim of funding cuts late last year. Until November, she had directed activities for a 190-bed SNF in Poulsbo, Wash. Today, she is operating as an independent consultant working when she can with various LTC facilities throughout the area.

Rauch says her employer, like some others, found itself under financial pressure and responded by combining functions in order to cut staff. “Fortunately, layoffs are not yet a widespread phenomenon, and I hope they won’t become one,” she says.

Turning to the expected deluge of baby boomers, Rauch believes many will strive “to hold onto their independence as long as possible, and the increasing availability of home healthcare will enable this to happen. As a percentage of the elderly demographic, more people will age in place.” 

As for those who do enter long-term care, Rauch says one thing will remain constant: “As always, all residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities want what everyone else wants—to be valued and have quality in their day. They want to be heard—to have their desires, thoughts and feelings validated.”

Alan Richman is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He writes about lifestyle issues. He last wrote “Faith-based Diets” for Long-Term Living (April 2011, page 24). Contact him at

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