The psychological importance of nursing home activities

I refer my residents to therapeutic activities every day. I consider them a vital adjunct to my work as a psychologist. Here’s why:

· Therapeutic recreation reverses the downward spiral of depression. There’s a theory that when we’re depressed, we stop doing the things we enjoy, thus leading to more depression. In order to become less depressed, we need to engage in activities we used to find pleasurable, even if we don’t feel like it. Once we do something fun, it energizes us enough to take the next pleasant action, thus leading to an upward spiral out of depression.

·Structured days are happier days. I suppose there are people who flourish with nothing much to do, but in my experience, most people feel better when they have plans. Residents who sit in their rooms all day tend to ruminate on the negative. As the saying goes, “When I’m in my head, I’m in a bad neighborhood.” I encourage residents to find at least two activities each week to attend on a regular basis.

· Activities are more vital when all time is leisure time. Nursing home residents don’t have to go to work. They don’t have to cook, clean, pay bills, or take care of other chores. When life tasks no longer take up the bulk of the day, it’s essential to fill the time with something else constructive.

· Therapeutic recreation allows residents to continue or create new identities. Our identities as individuals tend to be based on the things we do or have accomplished. Who are we when we are no longer able to accomplish what we used to? Therapeutic recreation provides the opportunity for new experiences and helps residents find creative ways to continue old interests that might be challenging due to disabilities.

· Activities foster socialization with peers. Residents often believe there’s no one in the nursing home they can talk to. This myth is dispelled through recreational activities, especially those that encourage the residents to speak up, such as trivia or group reminiscence.

· Life needs purpose. Activities that allow residents the opportunity to contribute to society give purpose to life. Residents can raise money for a world-wide cause, join the resident council to improve their nursing home, or create a gift for a family member in their art class. Purpose can also be found in personal satisfaction such as besting a Wii bowling record or appreciating a musical performance.

· Apart from medical care, therapeutic recreation is the best reason to be in a nursing home. Residents receive essential healthcare in nursing homes, but it’s the recreation department that gives them the opportunity to create a new life.

Dr. Barbera is an author and a licensed psychologist consulting in long-term care facilities in the New York City area. She frequently lectures on subjects related to psychology, aging, and nursing homes. Dr. Barbera is available for private consulting with organizations, institutions, and individuals around eldercare issues. Visit her personal blog at


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