After 30 years as an activity professional in skilled nursing, working in assisted living is a refreshing change of pace. Creating an enriching and engaging life enrichment program for a brand-new community is an exciting, challenging and rewarding experience—all at the same time. As we approach our four-year anniversary at Aegis on Madison in Seattle, I have found with the number of programs and daily hours we devote toward a high level of engagement, our residents haven’t “aged in place” quite as fast as our competitors.
As the life enrichment director, a “daily sheet” highlights each program every day and details what it is, who’s leading it and where it can be found. Residents look for this sheet first thing each morning (and some the night before!) at the Concierge or in their hallway. Some even circle the things they don’t want to miss. The back of the sheet contains exercises in writing, arithmetic and 2nd grade-level reading, because studies have shown these are helpful to keep your mind active and reduce the chance of memory loss.
One of our successful programs is Drama Club. Participants are given scripts in large print secured with three rings for easy page turning. Each person’s part is highlighted, and memorization is not required. Simple props are added such as hats, wigs, name tags, jewelry, a telephone or a TV. Residents in the art class make the scenery. Unnecessary words or scene directions can be deleted to make reading the play easier for some. After weekly practices spanning three months, the play is performed twice to a crowd of friends, family and staff. Each actor is given a rose and a standing ovation for his/her hard work. Reading out loud is the key factor and increased self-esteem is just one of the benefits of Drama Club.
Programs by a Music Therapist such as Musical Bingo, Name That Tune, Musical Spotlight, Chorus, Drum Circle and Music Meditation provide incredible benefits to our seniors’ well-being. One highlight is called Songwriters where residents write the lyrics to music they have created. This has been so successful that the residents eventually had enough songs to record their own CD. Again, the residents in the art class created the artwork for the CD cover. The official launching of the CD brought families, staff and residents to the unveiling and even enticed a local television station to cover the story. All the CD proceeds were donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.
For those who do not wish to be in a group setting, we offer four different opportunities to care for others outside our own community:
Our men’s group regularly visits the Shelter to drop off the donations. Residents who want additional responsibilities might volunteer to keep all of the donations organized. Our women’s group discusses issues facing women today as well as the challenges they face, and they feel better knowing they are proactively supporting each other.
Producing beer is a year-long program. The gardening group planted the hops. The memory care residents picked the hops off the vines, and the assisted living residents cooked and bottled the beer. We called it “A Beer for the Aegis.” The beer even won 3rd place at the county fair this year.
Producing wine takes several years, so grapes were planted soon after we opened in 2014. By 2017, we were ready to make our first batch. A local winery allowed us to pick cabernet grapes, and when they heard that our community’s seniors were going to make wine with them, they ended up donating the 125 pounds of grapes to us.
Our Oktoberfest party brought residents out of their apartments to de-stem, wash and taste the grapes. We filled a small kiddie pool with the grapes so the residents & staff could stomp on them.(It was a wonderful massage for the feet but a little slippery, so be cautious.) Watching the residents’ faces when we began stomping and listening to them laugh was the highlight of my year. Yes, our feet were clean, but sources say that the fermentation process also will kill any bacteria.
The juice was then poured into a large vat where it fermented for two months. Several more programs took place later as we monitored the fermentation and bottled the final product. We named the wine “Mad Cab” and plan to open it on our fourth anniversary for a tasting.
“Mad Money” is used as an incentive to participate in programs. Residents can earn $50 in Mad Money by filling out the backside of the daily sheet and turning it into the concierge or by attending any program with a “$” by it. For using our Dakim Brain Fitness gym or being a top participant in life enrichment programs, residents can earn $1,000 in Mad Money. Mad Money also is given out instead of prizes at programs like bingo or for being at physical games such as golf, bowling, volleyball, corn hole or ping pong.
Every other month, we hold an auction—one of our most popular events—where residents use their Mad Money to purchase items. Auction items range from toothpaste, facial tissue and soap to jewelry, toys, seasonal items, door decorations and candy. Residents start the bidding at $50.00 but often find it soon jumping to thousands of dollars. More expensive items such as gift cards, wine, massages, pedicures and community trips have minimum bids. Sometime residents have to be encouraged several times during the auction to spend their Mad Money because “it isn’t legal tender anywhere else in the world.”
Residents are now requesting the addition of useful items they can donate back to our charities such as children’s toys, clothing, hats and gloves. The auction is full of laughter and gasps of sheer delight and is everyone’s favorite activity.
Just offering a wide range of programs isn’t enough. All our programs are deliberately intertwined and have a relationship to each other. Whether the focus is inside the building or out in the community, the activities are designed to engage residents and help them to be a part of something much bigger than just to “sit back and be entertained.” Residents don’t come to our assisted living to just spend their last days. They come to live.
Susan Rauch is a board certified activity consultant through the National Association of Activity Professionals Credentialing Center and has more than 33 years of experience working with seniors as an activity professional in long-term care.