Residents blossom at Magnolia Gardens

Residents and staff enjoy the fresh air on a stroll around the campus

It’s a sunny springtime afternoon and a group of residents gather and wait for their transportation to arrive. Today, the guys, along with a few of the ladies, are taking in a ball game. Another group of residents meet on the sidewalk to take an invigorating walk around the campus. Meanwhile, other residents prefer a hot cup of coffee and conversation in the café. Why? Because this is what they like to do, and at Magnolia Gardens, residents get to do what they want.

In today’s interpretation of long-term care, the buzz is all about resident choice and preference. Many long-term care facilities claim that their programs are resident-driven, but are they? At Magnolia Gardens, a 79-unit assisted living facility in Toms River, New Jersey, resident input has been vital from the day the facility opened its doors in 2002.

“Residents have been involved in determining their social, recreational, leisure, and spiritual activities from day one,” says Administrator Cathy Vakulchik, RN, LNHA, “and they are instrumental in the planning, execution, and participation of much of the social programming.” In fact, Magnolia Gardens’ success in blending resident input with staff-designed activities has been recognized by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSS), which recognized the facility with its 2006 Assisted Living Best Practice award for enhancing the social experience.

Getting a Resident’s View

Pet visits are eagerly anticipated

According to Assistant Administrator Amy Palazzo, CALA, the activities staff begins creating a sample calendar of activities for the residents. “Every month, however, we have an activities planning meeting with the residents and they weigh in on what they liked or didn’t like about past activities and let us know what new ventures they would like to see incorporated in the calendar,” she says. “But,” adds Vakulchik, “resident involvement is ongoing and be-gins at admission.”

Magnolia Gardens’ library hosts a discussion group
Residents enjoy a friendly card game

When someone moves to Magnolia Gardens, the activity director meets with the resident and his or her family and talks about the resident’s likes, former hobbies, new interests, and religious affiliation. “In this way,” says Palazzo, “if we know a resident enjoys gardening and we have a horticultural activity, we make sure that the resident is invited and encouraged to participate.”

Magnolia Garden’s open-door policy also embraces family and staff opinions and suggestions. “It’s not unusual for a resident or family member to drop in and say, ‘That was a really good program last night,’ or ‘Hmmm, bingo didn’t go too well, did it?’” This type of feedback and interaction among staff, residents, and families can happen anywhere—even in the hallways. In addition to maximizing the opportunities for socialization, Magnolia Gardens encourages—and expects—its entire staff to engage residents and become active participants when pos-sible. Vakulchik explains that the administration looks at that personal involvement as part of the job. “We see this as getting involved and making the residents happy,” Palazzo stresses. In addition to satisfaction surveys, residents and families are interviewed annually to find out what new interests can be added. These methods ensure that programming continues to meet resident expectations.

Designed for Socialization

“Magnolia Gardens has a very open physical layout,” says Vakulchik, “which gives us an opportunity to offer a wide variety of activities, entertainment, and social events.” Atrium Circle, located in the center of the building, is the hub of Magnolia Gardens. Furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas, this area is a place for residents to relax, visit, or just enjoy the calming sounds of the Atrium’s fishpond and waterfall. The building and its amenities were designed to enhance residents’ lives and opportunities for personal enrichment.

Exercise or relaxation is available at the warm-water pool

There is a lot to do at Magnolia Gardens. Residents can sit in authentic red plush velvet movie theater seats to watch classic films and new releases on a 10-foot screen in the facility’s movie theater, which is also used for resident council meetings and resident and family educational conferences. In addition to the theater, Magnolia Gardens provides residents with other destinations, including an 18-foot indoor heated pool.

The barber and beauty shops offer an array of services (from haircuts to perms and manicures to waxing) so residents can look good and feel good. A retro-style self-serve café, stocked with coffee, tea, assorted juices, and sweet treats, is a popular place for residents, staff, and visitors to socialize. A number of open gathering areas are used for exercise programs, such as sittercise and balloon volleyball, and to host entertainment—even a little stand-up comedy performed by staff. A favorite destination for the men (and some ladies) features an elegant custom-made oak bar and a pool table. Here, weekly blackjack tournaments are held and the weekly cooking club tries out delicious recipes.

Off-campus excursions are enjoyed by residents

“Fridays are always fun here,” says Vakulchik. “Every week we have a themed party. It may be a birthday celebration, staff recognition, or a holiday.” Palazzo adds that everyone—residents, staff, families, and visitors—is welcome to attend. Occasionally, special events fill the day with fun. “Wear Your PJs to Work Day was a hit,” says Vakulchik. Residents and staff collaborated on this event. Staff came to work in their nightwear and the residents got a real kick out of seeing their highly professional staff walking around in bunny slippers and robes. “It was a hilarious event, and staff laughed right along with the residents,” she adds.

Beyond the Campus

Although there is plenty of activity at Magnolia Gardens, residents occasionally like to get out in the community to shop, dine, go to an event, or just get away. “We help residents plan lunch outings or, if they want, we’ll order takeout pizza, Chinese food, or whatever they have a taste for, and the group will get together in a private dining room to enjoy this treat and each other’s company,” says Vakulchik.

A resident-led Rosary prayer service is held twice a week but, Palazzo says, people still like to attend Mass. “One of our residents has taken it upon herself to find out who would like to go to church once in a while. Through the church, she arranges for a driver to take these residents to and from services,” she explains.

The Importance of Being Useful

Residents aren’t always looking to be the focus of attention, though. Like anyone, they also want to be useful. One resident, for example, runs Magnolia Gardens’ on-site store that offers small gifts, toiletries, candies, and the like. Now, if someone runs out of shampoo, he or she doesn’t have to wait for a family member to replenish the item. “We just call this lady and she gets whatever is needed to the resident and it’s taken care of,” says Vakulchik.

When there is a project, like mailing the facility’s newsletter, a number of residents offer to complete the task. Meeting in a conference room, they get together and accomplish the job as a team. “Through a work-type activity, these residents get a sense of fulfillment and usefulness that means a lot to them,” states Vakulchik.

Activities at Magnolia Gardens are gen-der neutral, and men participate in the cooking classes, bingo, or gardening activities as quickly as the ladies will sit with the guys to watch sports or play blackjack. The most important part is that the residents choose what they want to do and how they want to do it.


These activities are an integral part of residents’ lives. “We have found that if residents feel that they have a purpose in their lives, supported by an activities program, it has a positive impact on their mental health and physical well-being and helps to keep them independent,” says Vakulchik. Providing quality of life is the ultimate goal, and at Magnolia Gardens these positives also have become staff positives. All departments realize how interrelated they are in meeting residents’ needs. Listen to your residents. They have a lot of ideas and know what’s good for them.

For more information, phone (732) 557-6500 or visit To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail

Topics: Activities , Articles