When most people think of a nursing home, they think of sick people lying in bed, waiting to die.
While it's true that some nursing home residents are put on hospice given their prognosis, this is not the majority of people.
You might also be surprised to hear that nursing home residents can be young -- sometimes as young as their 30's.
Regardless of age, these residents are full of life. And they have a lot left to give.
To give you a little context, I worked (pre-Covid) as a Restorative Nurse at a nursing home five minutes from my house. Restorative is basically a fancy term for nurse-driven physical therapy.
It's my therapy as much as theirs.
These are my people.
In the nine months since I started working in long term care, I've learned a lot about these residents. How they like their coffee. Where they were born. How they made a living.
How they dodged a bullet in Korea.
I've learned secrets and one-liners scandalous enough to raise the eyebrows of even this desensitized millennial 😲
I've also learned about their needs, which are simple. Clean clothes, a hot plate of food, a roof over their heads.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: a purpose.
Nursing home residents are bored. Most of them went from productive, busy lives filled with children, work obligations, and social engagements to idle days spent staring wistfully at the clock, counting down the minutes until their children come back to visit. Some of them have forgotten they have a family. Others have no living relatives.
These residents deserve better. They need variety. They need music, engagement, socialization. They need to laugh and feel young again. It's become a personal mission of mine to make these residents' lives as full as possible for whatever little time they have left.
Without further delay, here are 10 ways you can bring joy, color, music and purpose to the life of a nursing home resident. None of these activities are expensive or time-consuming, but they do require a little advance planning and creativity. Some of them can even be done outdoors (weather permitting), which provides the added benefits of fresh air and sunlight.
**Note: due to HIPPA privacy laws I cannot include photos of residents participating in the activities described. I tried my best to include photos of props, materials, setup, etc. to maintain patient privacy. That being said, I apologize if some of these photos are a bit lacking!
1. Glamour Shots
One of the best ways to show a resident you care is by making him/her feel young and attractive again. You'd be surprised what a little makeup and curling iron can do! One of my assistants helped me do-up about 40 residents for Mother's Day and Father's Day, and it was just as fun for us as it was for them. Surprisingly, the men got just as into it as the ladies!
Here are a few tips to help you pull it off:
- Natural light is your best friend. If you can set up your backdrop outside, do. You may need a tripod if it's overcast, but in my opinion it's worth it.
- Find a seating area that can accommodate wheelchairs and recliners.
- Goodwill and local thrift shops are treasure troves. Make sure to pick up a few generic dress sizes, coats, jewelry, and undershirts for the ladies. The men look great in hats, dress jackets, and a boutonniere.
- Just have fun with it! If you're trying to get your subject to loosen up, bring along a resident friend. Ask them to tell stories about their wild youth! Or ask about children -- that almost always warms up their expression.
To make the trellis swoon worthy, I wrapped the entire structure in chicken wire, then secured the wire with zip ties. I proceeded to tuck about 40 dollar store bouquets into the holes and then finish it off with a few snips of actual ivy from the surrounding woods. Throw in a few yards of tulle, a blue sheet, some pillows and -- voilà!
I emailed digital copies of the photos to families, and then the photos were displayed in the hall for everyone's enjoyment.
2. Beach Ball Volleyball
I had 10 yards of leftover netting from the Glamour Shots. I repurposed them into this volleyball net. Netting is less expensive than tulle (about $1/yard) but has the same effect.
I tied one end of the netting to a tree and the other end to a microphone stand. Beach balls are easier on the joints than actual volleyballs. When the weather is bad I'll use push-pins to secure the netting to opposite walls of our dining hall.
3. Balloon Darts
This game is pure, messy fun. Here's how to set it up:
- Carefully pour acrylic craft paint into an empty balloon.
- Once it's full of paint, insert a balloon pump and fill the rest of the balloon with air.
- Carefully tie the end of the balloon. Insert a push pin through the end into a piece of plywood or scrap board of your choosing (preferably wood).
- Have the resident don an isolation gown to protect their clothes from splash back.
- Set the resident's wheelchair at a distance appropriate to their throwing ability. Hand them a bunch of darts and let 'em fly!
4. Pop the Weasel Balloon Challenge
Here's another great balloon destruction game. Isn't there something so satisfying about intentionally popping a balloon?
- Start by making fake money out of small pieces of paper. Make sure to include very high dollar amounts as well as a few goose eggs.
- Gently fold the currency and insert into an empty balloon. Inflate balloon and tie off.
- Tie each balloon to a moderate amount of party string. Secure the string to the ceiling with a piece of painter's tape (I used a paper clip since we have a dropped ceiling in our dining hall). Hang the balloons at varying heights for different levels of difficulty.
- Put on some party music. Explain to the residents that their goal is to pull down and pop as many balloons possible by whatever means possible to collect their money. Whoever collects the highest gross total wins.
You can come up with a few prizes to keep it interesting. I was surprised by how competitive some of the residents got! I guess it's pretty exciting to win $10,000 regardless of the actual monetary value.
5. Band Practice - aka "Musical Chairs"
I initially dubbed this activity Musical Chairs, since everyone was going to play music from their wheelchairs. Then I realized this was way too confusing based on the original meaning of Musical Chairs. Eventually, we changed the name of our jam sessions to The Chestnut Jug Band (our facility is called Chestnut Ridge), and the name just stuck.
- Come up with a playlist that has a relatively easy beat to follow. You don't want anything too fast or too slow. Think: The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Blue Suede's Hooked on a Feeling.
- Gather the residents in a large circle. Hand out tambourines, maracas, triangle bells, jingle bells, cymbals, empty glass jugs, wash boards, etc. Once I brought in 5-gallon buckets from home to use as drums...management wasn't too keen on the noise level that day. Whoops! 🙂
- Start the music and lead everyone to play with the beat. Feel free to get up and dance from time to time -- just get into it.
6. Dancing with the Staff
A nod to ABC's Dancing with the Stars, the goal of this activity is to get both residents and staff moving. After our first DWTS, one of the residents (who has since passed) told me "It's the best thing we ever did." Since then we've done a '70s disco theme, '80s theme, and a Blues Brothers-themed dance.
It's really too bad I can't share photos of the residents and staff members dancing together, because they're absolutely priceless. Instead, I'll leave you with one of the many photoshopped flyers that I've created for the staff.
7. Conga Line
Crank up the Harry Belafonte and Jump in the Line! Line up the residents and assign staff members to those who have trouble moving their wheelchairs. Bonus points for costumes and props. Make your way down the halls playing your music, and watch the line grow as residents come out of their rooms!
8. Relaxation Station
This activity is a crowd favorite. Set up some meditation music and get a diffuser going with essential oils. As a registered nurse I'm able to perform light massage therapy in addition to aromatherapy. Sometimes I'll use warm towels to loosen up their back muscles beforehand.
For a real spa-like effect, keep a cart handy with cucumber-infused water. You can also let your residents make their own lotions and linen sprays from the essential oils they enjoy.
Another fun exercise is "Name that Scent." Visually impaired residents particularly enjoy this guessing game because it engages their other senses.
9. Beach Ball Racquetball
Here's an easy nursing home activity for residents and visitors alike. Throw a few grandchildren into the mix and things will really get hopping.
- Gather your residents in a circle.
- Put on some fun, lively music.
- Give the residents pool noodle rackets (see below) with which to hit their beach balls. Tell them to give the balls a solid whack so that the sound reverberates around the room.
- Assist the residents with getting the ball to each other. Just keep going until they seem fatigued. That's it!
Here's how to make these rackets:
- Gather your supplies: a pool noodle, colored duct tape, laundry net, hot glue.
- Cut one of the ends of your pool noodle at a 45-degree angle. Bend this end into a loop, so that it's in the crook of what will become your racket handle. Secure with duct tape.
- Next, take your laundry net and wrap it over the end of your handle. Tie off the excess.
- Lastly, secure any loose edges of the laundry net by hot glueing it to your pool noodle. Use sparingly; high temperature glues tend to erode the noodle a bit.
I once had a resident request "sexy" music for group exercise. I wasn't sure how exactly to respond to this 😂 But one day it occurred to me -- "Why can't we dance and exercise at the same time?" It's like hiding vegetables in your kids' food.
Dancersize (noun) | 1. The incorporation of rhythmic dance movements into range of motion strengthening exercises. 2. Whatever gets the residents' hips moving in their wheelchairs. 3. Billy Banks for the 70+ coterie.
- Distribute resistance bands to your group. Arrange everyone in a circle.
- Put on some (G-rated) pop music: my go-to artists include Meghan Trainor, Cher, Britney Spears, ABBA, and Bruce Springsteen.
- Ask the residents to model and repeat an assortment of dance moves: "The Sprinkler," "The Whip," "Climbing the Ladder," "The Beyonce," "Thriller," "The Pageant Wave," etc.
- Feel free to incorporate self-defense moves. Our Activities Director used to be in the Army and likes to share tidbits.
When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you. - Louis Armstrong
Group therapy has many benefits including the reduced risk of falls and increased resident independence. It keeps them stimulated and it gives them a a sense of purpose. More than anything, it makes them feel loved.
A nursing home does not have to be a depressing place. You can share your light simply by showing others you care. My hope is that this list will inspire you to take action, so together we can let these generations know they still matter.
Godspeed, and have fun!