By Marianne Delorey
“Painting’s not important. The important thing is keeping busy.” – Grandma Moses
Our staff likes to tease. The easiest group to pick on is the activities staff. We accuse them of having a cushy job, saying they get paid to play games all day, to listen to music, have snacks, knit, play puzzles on the computer, or go on trips. We roll our eyes when they complain about a hard day. But the truth is these jobs are hard. They are also important, undervalued, and have a real impact on our residents.
Everyone prioritizes. Organizations like Housing and Urban Development (HUD) spend their money on bricks and mortar so they can house as many people as possible. HUD (and most people) view activities as “an extra” that can go unfunded. After all, why should taxpayers fund an ice cream social or spend money on puzzles or games?
More and more research, however, is providing a solid reason to do so. Some research finds that any activity that draws people together has a solid benefit. The AARP is doing research to help combat loneliness and isolation among seniors for a very simple reason – loneliness kills.
According to their research, lonely adults are at greater risk of memory loss, strokes, heart disease and high blood pressure. The effect of loneliness on the health of a senior is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In a nutshell, lonely seniors decline and die faster, and once they are lonely, they may push others away, creating a downward spiral that affects them very quickly.
But that is not all. Additional research by Festini, McDonough and Park found that people who were busier had better cognitive skills including memory regardless of age. And perhaps more importantly, research by Csikszentmihalyi also indicates that crafting – knitting or coloring or any activity that allows you to learn and be creative – can have the same health benefits as meditation, including reducing stress and fighting inflammation.
And, if you listen to the residents who participate, they will tell you that the silly game of cards or dice they play once a week helps to keep them sharp. Some look forward to computer class, some like the trips. One resident colors, one painted rocks. Another resident asked for something to do so she could focus on something other than her depression. Residents feel useful when they make craft items and this sense of purpose makes them happier and healthier.
Best yet, the activities staff keeps an eye out for changes in cognition or memory that might need to get reported to doctors or family members. If a regular attendee misses a class, we often know to go check in to make sure they are OK.
We like to tease our activities staff, but the truth is, we’d be lost without them. They have an almost impossible job some days – be happy and upbeat, even when you don’t feel like it, and engage people who might just want to be alone.
Having activities on site means we can offer not just housing, but housing with dignity. Providing bricks and mortar may make it possible to maximize community housing for elders, but having activities helps maximize the quality and quantity of their final years.