Senior living communities that make the three B’s — bingo, birthdays and Bible — the centerpiece of their recreational programs are living in the dark ages, activities experts say.

And while those in touch with modern society may find it hard to believe that such old-fashioned ideas still exist, the fact is they do, says Charles de Vilmorin, CEO of Linked Senior.

“There is still a lot of backward thinking going on,” he says. “There is still a lot of room to progress.”

With baby boomers in charge of selecting communities for not only their parent, but themselves, the three B’s just don’t cut it, de Vilmorin contends. The boomer generation is much more sophisticated and demanding in their leisurely pursuits, he says, predicting facilities that don’t offer a wide variety of activities will go the way of the dinosaur.

“The whole movement should go way beyond the three B’s,” de Vilmorin says. “Activities today should focus on the Seven Dimensions of Wellness.”

Jack York, CEO of It’s Never 2 Late, agrees that many senior living communities are too conservative in their activities planning and need to be more in tune with what contemporary seniors want.

“People today don’t want to participate in mind-numbing group activities. They want experiences that are entertaining but also have some semblance of dignity,” he says. “There’s a consciousness about purposeful activities, staying brain fit and staying connected with people who have similar interests.”

The gatekeeper to recreational programming is the activities director, a position de Vilmorin believes needs to become more creative and empowered.

“Activities directors are not well regarded and aren’t getting the training they need to develop the kind of programs that are in demand,” he says. “They need much more training on this front.”

Perspectives differ on this issue, however. As an activities professional for more than 30 years, Judi Boyd contends that the role of activities director is getting more respect and is evolving along the right path.

“The days of an activities director just running bingo games and birthday parties have long disappeared,” says Boyd, sales and marketing director for Nasco. “The knowledge and training now required in this field is actually very broad.”

Today’s activities directors are trained to identify residents’ medical conditions and how they affect their social functioning; how to work with disabled residents; how to be a part of the clinical and rehabilitation team; how to work with volunteers and the community and how to conduct social programming that meets the needs and interests of all residents, Boyd says.

“The activities professional must be able to tailor and focus programs to meet everyone’s needs and wants,” she says. “That can be a huge job that takes a lot of skill.”

Even with all the changes going on, Boyd concedes that she’s surprised how much hasn’t changed with regard to activities. In 2013, the Nasco Senior Activities Catalog will celebrate its 20th anniversary and Boyd recently reviewed the product offerings in the very first catalog.

“There was a heavy emphasis on mental stimulation products such as trivia games and reminiscing resources, which continue to be very strong today,” she says.

No ‘old people’ activities

The key to modern activities planning is avoiding the stereotypical “rest home” image that characterizes the negative perception people have, Boyd says.

“As much as possible, today’s seniors want to continue to pursue the interests they had before coming to our facilities,” she says. “They don’t want to do ‘old people activities,’ so how activity programming is planned and presented is very important. They want to work to regain or maintain their health and cognition and stay as young as possible.”

Some communities offer group sports, or encourage moderate exercise activities either outdoors or in a gym. Additionally, the growing popularity of Nintendo Wii and other virtual gaming systems have proven that senior living residents still have a competitive streak and are enthusiastically embracing a wide variety of animated sports, such as bowling, golf and tennis. There is even a national virtual bowling league that holds tournaments twice a year.

Alternative exercise programs, such as yoga, tai chi and various forms of dance, should be standard in any activities regimen, experts say.

Musical tastes are shifting, too. Karaoke playlists are starting to include classic rock, such as the Beatles and Motown.

In fact, music is increasingly seen as a legitimate therapy for cognitively impaired residents, as evidenced by a recent viral Internet video that shows a withdrawn elderly man instantly come out of his shell when he hears the music of his youth.

That outcome was the result of a growing program called Music & Memory, founded by Dan Cohen. First interviewed by McKnight’s over a year ago, Cohen’s popularity, and that of his program, have since skyrocketed.

In 2011, he was hustling to get nursing homes to adopt his innovative program, which provides iPods with personalized playlists to residents with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. His goal then was to make personalized playlists — as played on iPods — a standard of care in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

He’s now on track to do just that.

“In the long-term, I know we can make this a standard of care. What that’s going to look like in time, I’m not sure,” Cohen told McKnight’s. “Maybe physicians will write prescriptions for iPod therapy. Maybe CMS [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] will include this in their funding stream.”

Spurred by the meteoric YouTube success of a viral video from a documentary on his project, Cohen has been inundated with requests for interviews, offers of help and questions from nursing home workers all over the world.

“Music is a very useful tool for reaching cognitively impaired residents,” de Vilmorin agrees. “It gets them actively engaged.”

Diversity and dignity
Senior living residents are becoming more diverse in many ways — racially, spiritually, ethnically and culturally.
Today, some nursing homes are throwing celebrations for holidays like Cinco De Mayo (May 5) or invite local children to “trick or treat” at the facility on Halloween.

Activities should reflect and celebrate the levels of increased diversity, York says.

“This is something facilities definitely need to address,” he says. “Because of this growing diversity, activities programmers need to find things that are relevant for everyone.”

What’s more, York says, activities need to be dignified and not patronizing for residents because “today’s seniors will not tolerate condescension.”