Dr. Eleanor Barbera

One of the things that most brightens my workday is when I see long-term care residents hanging out together.

In particular, I’ve noticed two ladies who attend activities in tandem wearing dresses with hats and costume jewelry, a threesome of confused residents who sit near the nursing station laughing at jokes only they understand, and an African-American and a Caucasian octogenarian twosome who are amazed to be best friends since neither of them had a friend of the other race before.

Men gather for card games, guys group in the hallway offering wry observations on the behaviors of the staff and other residents, and rehab patients tell me how inspired they are by someone they meet lifting weights in physical therapy. Sometimes I’ll discover that the resident they mentioned is, in turn, inspired by them.

What long-term care offers, aside from medical help and safety, is the opportunity to connect with peers and to maintain a social life. One of our best selling points is the fact that folks can get to activities without needing a coat or umbrella. New residents are often surprised and reassured to learn that there are “transporters” who will bring them to and from daily recreation programs, all for free.

Emphasizing these benefits on admissions tours appeals to family members seeking a vibrant home for loved ones and will help keep those beds filled.

Scientific research suggests another way the recreation department is good for maintaining a high census: “Social interaction is a critically important contributor to good health and longevity,” Jane E. Brody writes in Social Interaction is Critical for Mental and Physical Health. She reports on a study indicating “social ties can reduce deaths among people with serious medical conditions.”

I know many residents who credit their long lives to their roommates. “If it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead,” one lady declared emphatically. “She looks out for me.”

The whole team can assist the activities department in this fellowship-rich, long-life mission. Administrators and those in the C-suite can recognize the financial value of connecting residents and support efforts to prioritize recreational programs. Nursing staff can help residents prepare for activities in a timely fashion and be sure assistive devices such as hearing aids and eyeglasses are in place and functioning properly so people can make the most of every moment. All staff members can facilitate friendships between like-minded peers and encourage family members to do the same.

We often hear about elders wanting to stay home and “age in place” rather than come into nursing homes. For those with community supports, aging in place can be an excellent and viable option, but for many others living at home is a stressful, isolated life without proper care.

Residents can thrive socially in long-term settings and this consideration is well worth emphasizing as a counterpoint to negative stereotypes about the industry. As one of my patients commented, “I know they say terrible things about these places, but I’m having a ball here.”

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Gold Medal blogger in the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with more than 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.