By Adam Raider
It’s been said that recreation therapy is sometimes undervalued and misunderstood as a component of elder care. John Sweeney, Administrator of Masonicare at Newtown, offers a simple explanation.
“In a nursing home setting,” Sweeney said, “you tend to be focused on the nitty-gritty details, like dressing and wound care and showering and bathing. But without recreation, our residents would be sitting in their rooms all day and it would be a pretty boring existence. Our recreation therapists bring quality to their lives. They’re a huge asset to our organization.”
Susan Sonnati is Manager of Therapeutic Recreation at Masonicare at Newtown (MAN) and Lockwood Lodge, the adjacent assisted living facility. She and recreation therapists Lynn D’Angelo, Diane Fingerhut and Ann Snyder plan and implement recreation and other activities for the residents and patients. On any given day that could include running exercise groups and word games, accompanying residents to spiritual services, planning an outdoor concert or special event honoring veterans, or arranging out-trips to an apple orchard or ice cream shop.
“And then we also do our one-on-one activities,” Sonnati explained, “like strolls and sensory activities for the folks who need a little extra attention because they’re either unable to participate in the larger activities – like our dementia and memory impaired residents – or because the interest isn’t there.”
Although therapists try to gauge an individual’s likes and dislikes during their initial evaluation, really getting to know a resident takes time and is less science than art.
“We’re with the residents more than our own families,” Sonnati said, “so we get to know them and build a bond with them. It also depends on the resident, because they respond to each of us differently. For example, there’s a woman here who I know I can get to come out for activities but she may not be as responsive with the other therapists.”
Sonnati smiles, adding, “and I know they like when Lynn runs the exercise groups more than when I do it.”
“We strive to make a difference in the residents’ lives every day,” D’Angelo said, “and every day is different. I wish I could do it for everyone every day, but you can only work with so many people. If someone’s upset, and I can calm them down or get them to enjoy an activity by using little tricks I know or talking with them about something from their life, then I’m good. That’s very rewarding.”
D’Angelo recalls how she first became interested in recreation therapy as a profession.
“When I was 15,” she said, “I had a life experience – I was very ill and had to stay in the hospital. I had a recreation therapist who made a tie-dyed shirt with me. I remember that clearly. So when I got better, and was in high school, I told my mother that I wanted to go into a field where I didn’t have to poke at people or stick them with needles and I could have a good time. Fifteen isn’t usually the age when you decide what you want to be, but that’s when it happened for me.”
Since then, D’Angelo has come to appreciate recreation as something of a “hidden” therapy.
“Our residents and patients don’t realize that when they’re playing Wii Bowling,” she said, “they’re using their upper extremities to strengthen their muscles, or when they garden they’re using hand-eye coordination. Playing cards sharpens their cognitive skills because they have to know their numbers and recognize colors. We put the ‘fun’ in functional. They’re not aware of the additional benefits that they’re getting from this form of therapy because they’re having a good time. We’ve taken their mind off those aches and pains.”
“Without the recreation staff and the volunteers to help, there wouldn’t be anything for the residents to do,” said Jane Misencik, a longtime Masonicare volunteer who, along with husband Joe Misencik, has been dutifully running MAN’s weekly Bingo games since the early 1990s. “It’s so important to have that interaction and all those activities. Many of them do not get any visitors because they either don’t have family or because the family they have doesn’t come. They look forward to you bringing in the outside world – telling them what you’re up to and what’s happening in your life.”
“During the big winter storms last year,” Sonnati said, “I think we were touched that the residents were so concerned about us. They worry about us driving in bad weather to get to work. A few years ago, there was a blizzard and the snow was so deep you couldn’t even see our sign out at the entrance. So a few of us stayed over and the next morning, we served the residents breakfast.”
“That, right there,” D’Angelo said, “is a Masonicare Experience.”