Since I specialize in dementia care, you can imagine that I frequent quite a few memory care units, assisted living and skilled nursing care communities. I often have the pleasure of being invited to guest speak at many events regarding dementia and/or the opportunity to train staff members on dementia care. Recently on one of these occasions, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with an activity director. Since this person was new at this position, she was quite interested in my opinion on several activity projects she was putting together for her dementia residents. She remained in attendance throughout my entire presentation and I noticed her taking copious notes on whatever advice I was giving. It was obvious she was very dedicated to her new position.
Later as we had the chance to talk, the activity director was candid in sharing that she was running into conflicts with other staff members. I assured her that her job was to facilitate recreational and therapeutic activities for her residents, and she was not there to make the jobs of her co-workers easier. Granted, team-work is essential, but her responsibility is to ensure her residents are still living a quality of life which still contains daily activity.
We need to make sure all care community residents living with dementia, and all patients for that matter, are being stimulated and engaged. Therefore, I’ve always emphasized how important the job of an activity director truly is.
One of my favorite communities is Arden Courts. They specialize solely in dementia care and their rule of thumb is, “Let’s not worry about what they cannot do anymore but concentrate on what they still can.”
As an effective activity director, one must possess a special set of skills to do this job proficiently. Most of these skills come naturally as a gift and is usually part of his or her disposition.
First, you need to be confident and friendly - the so-called “social butterfly” of your community. It takes a certain personal magnetism to encourage the unwilling to participate in social functions. To do this you must have great communication skills and patience, especially when dealing with those who are living with dementia and are constantly progressing further into their disease.
Whether these activity directors are scheduling bingo games, sing-a-longs or simply having each patient or resident take their turn being the community Post Master of the day, it takes a constant knowledge of what task each resident can still perform. This is where a personal relationship with residents and patients comes in handy. If you sit down an advanced dementia patient in front of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, you most likely just-made matters worse for everyone.
The job may sound easy to some people but trust me, trying to keep a couple of dozen residents active is not an easy task. This is why I call activity directors “unsung heroes” because their role is vital to those who live in the community, other employees and the residents’ family members. They truly do not get the recognition they deserve. Many activity directors are doing their job alone, without any assistance.
The fact is just because someone’s heath issues have brought them to the point where they are living in a care community, it shouldn’t mean their social world has to come to an end.
Gary Joseph LeBlanc
Dementia Spotlight Foundation