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At Masonicare Health Center, Recreation is More Than Just “Fun and Games”

August 27, 2012

By Adam Raider

Recreation plays an important role in caring for Masonicare’s residents by contributing to an enhanced quality of life. In that way, it speaks to the organization’s commitment to caring for the whole person: mind, body and spirit.

“Were you ever stuck at home because you were sick or because of a big snowstorm, and you were bored and frustrated?” asked Betty Naylor, a recreational therapist assigned to the Short Term Rehabilitation Unit at Masonicare Health Center. “All you needed was someone to get you motivated to do some kind of activity. Think of our residents in the same way.”

Here, as at Masonicare at Newtown and Masonicare at Ashlar Village, Masonicare’s recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate programs and activities for groups and individuals. Their objective is not to keep residents perpetually busy, but rather, to keep them stimulated to the point where they can enjoy all the intended physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Events like theme dinners, breakfast clubs, and wine and cheese socials encourage socialization while word games, trivia, sing-a-longs, and travelogues encourage cognitive thinking and self-expression. Therapists also use animal-assisted therapy, a great mood-lifter that’s growing in popularity; run exercise groups to promote physical fitness; and assist during spiritual services.

“This is home for our residents,” said Melinda J. Schoen, Vice President of Administration at Masonicare Health Center, “and they need to have recreation in their lives. They need to be able to do the things they enjoy but aren’t able to do on their own. And since you can’t take 382 long-term care residents out all at once, activities and entertainment are brought to them in their home setting. We have Bingo, casino nights, concerts out on the lawn, movie nights – all the things that you and I enjoy in our lives. We’re always focused on residents’ medical and emotional needs, but recreation pulls it all together.”

Noreen Schmidt, Recreation Department Coordinator at the Health Center, credits her staff for bringing a wide range of interests and talents to their work. They succeed, she said, because they’re compassionate, creative, outgoing, patient, capable of adapting to a rapidly changing resident population, and willing to see themselves as part of a broader interdisciplinary team that also includes clinical and dietary staff, physical and occupational therapists, and social workers, among others.

“I feel like we’re respected by the other staff,” Noreen said. “They value our input because they know how well we know the residents, and because they see how we’ve built up a level of trust with them.”

Establishing a rapport with new residents isn’t always easy, but recreational therapists find that humor can be a powerful ice breaker. Noreen, a devout New York Yankees fan, isn’t above hurling a few good-natured barbs at a Boston Red Sox devotee because it almost always prompts a smile.

“And we’re willing to make fun of ourselves,” she said. “The residents love it.”

“We had a lobster-themed dinner,” Betty recalled, “and the staff wore these bright red lobster hats. All these residents who are usually sort of stoic suddenly wanted to wear the hats too, and before you know it, the whole group was acting goofy. It starts with us setting the tone, and playing off one another. That’s what our residents need sometimes: to step outside of their immediate environment and go to a different place.”

“But,” adds Mary Ann Baer, a recreational therapist at the Health Center’s Dementia Care Unit, “we’re also there for the people who are unable to be involved in a lot of the more festive activities. Maybe they’re only able to be observers, or they’re in their rooms on bed rest, or they’re receiving hospice care. Sometimes, we just have to be there, sitting next to the resident, talking with them or holding their hand. I’ve sat with a lot of people and sometimes, words fail.”

Mary Ann often uses music in her recreational programs, both in groups and in one-on-one situations. She finds that most patients respond to music, particularly those in the Dementia Care Unit.

“I had a patient who hadn’t spoken for ages,” she recalled, “and all of a sudden, this person came out and sang an entire song that I had forgotten most of the lyrics to … and finished it for me.”

Although there’s nothing unique about a facility like Masonicare Health Center having a recreation department, staff insist there’s something different about the way this crucial service is delivered here.

“Having so many resources is a big part of it,” said Mary Ann. “We couldn’t do a lot of what we do without the financial support we receive from The Masonic Charity Foundation. I came here from a facility that did not have many of these resources so when I got here, it was like I’d come to Heaven. I saw that so much more could be done with and for the residents. I think this is probably the best organization of its kind in Connecticut.”

“We get tremendous support from the community in the form of volunteers and from the various Masonic organizations,” said Betty. “Nowhere have I experienced anything like that, and I think it’s one of the great benefits of working for a nonprofit.”

“It’s the people, too,” adds Noreen. “There’s something special about the people who work at Masonicare, from the Administration on down. A perfect example was when we did a cruise theme for National Nursing Homes Week. So we asked Steve McPherson, the CEO of Masonicare, to be the ‘captain.’ He came with us to every floor and rang this bell, telling the residents what our destination would be, how fast we’d be going, and what the weather was like. He went along with it and we had so much fun. What CEO does that? Only at Masonicare.”