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Life After 50 – The Benefits of Recreational Therapy

Life After 50 – The Benefits of Recreational Therapy

Mar 1, 2014, 8:18 a.m.

By Cydney Kaplan, Owner of Independent Living Concierge

What is Recreational Therapy?


Recreational therapists work with clients to restore motor, social and cognitive functioning, build confidence, develop coping skills, and integrate past interests back into their lives. Recreational therapy is often used in rehabilitation settings, long term care, veterans hospitals, and outdoor programming. Examples of recreational therapy modalities include creative arts (e.g., crafts, music, dance, drama), sports, outdoor adventure programming (e.g., high / low ropes courses, swimming, hiking) outings, and leisure education and resources. These programs help maintain or improve a client’s physical and emotional well-being. Therapeutic recreation is based upon a holistic framework that focuses on all aspects of improving an individual’s health and functioning. By providing structured and unstructured therapy-driven services. Therapeutic recreation is used for improving physical abilities, building confidence and promoting greater self-reliance.


Recreational therapy is often used hand in hand with physical therapy and occupational therapy. All therapies work together to achieve the same goal, but use different means to get there. For example, a senior who just suffered from a stroke. The senior would go to physical therapy to strengthen their muscles that have atrophied from the stroke by lifting weights or walking. The senior would also go to occupational therapy to learn how to comb their hair or brush their teeth. And lastly, the senior would go to recreational therapy to go bowling, using an adaptive bowling ball.


In working with seniors specifically in recreational therapy, it provides an avenue to pursue new leisure skills or perhaps re-new interest in old leisure skills that they thought they couldn’t do anymore. For example, a senior who used to love to do crafts but thinks s/he can no longer do them because of a lack eyesight, the craft can be scarf painting. The senior paints directly on the scarf and even if the paint runs a bit, its ok for this activity. The senior is newly engaged in in something they loved from years before. By using a pastime a senior enjoyed the activity or game can be adapted so they can enjoy it again.


Recreational therapy in seniors is especially important because they can suffer from loneliness, depression, and anxiety, which can lead to loss of physical functioning and can contribute to early death. Recreational therapy provides an avenue for a senior to renew, maintain, and utilize important mental and physical skills, thereby prolonging overall health.


Recreational therapy adapts activities to the clients specific needs to see results. For example, when working with seniors who are unable to express themselves or aphasic (partial or total loss of the ability to articulate ideas or comprehend spoken or written language, resulting from damage to the brain caused by injury or disease) and who are paralyzed on half the body, hemiplegic (Paralysis affecting only one side of the body), the activity would be adapted to be a quieter, slower, and more controlled one; talking rather than writing activities that can be done with one hand are examples of this. On the contrary, while working with a senior without cognitive and / or physical deficits, that same activity may not need to be adapted at all.


One example of working with groups in recreational therapy is in an outing setting, going fishing. This outing is more then just going fishing, the clients are being taught skills that are good for their emotional, social, and physical well-being. For example, tying the line and baiting the hook works with eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills. Something most people take for granted is that these tasks can be very challenging and very rewarding at the same time. Casting or throwing the bait into the water uses gross motor skills and upper arm strength. Fishing can also enhance cognitive skills, creativity and socialization. A fishing trip helps clients relax in a different environment away from the hospital / rehab / assisted living, be outdoors, learn a new skill, and see new scenery. This is a great example of recreational therapy providing the recreational resources and opportunities to re-integrate into the community. All of these benefits are cost-effective, holistic, educational and most importantly…fun!


Cognitive training is another benefit of therapeutic recreation. Keeping the mind fit and active is just as important as keeping the body physically fit. Working with seniors doing “brain games” or “mental fitness” can help slow down further cognitive decline. It is important when working with seniors to find the right amount of challenge for them. The activity must be adapted to each client’s cognitive level, not too easy and not too hard. I like to call it the “Just Right Challenge”. The activity needs to be just hard enough to challenge the senior, but not so difficult to discourage him / her. One needs to think of exercising the brain like working a muscle. You wouldn’t go to the gym and do bicep curls with a two pound weight everyday, would you? No, you would slowly move up to the weights up to four pounds, then five pounds, etc., slowly building up that muscle and constantly challenging it. That’s exactly what you need to do with your brain. That challenge can be different things to different people. I could take two very different clients, do the same activity for both, but one is slightly adapted. As an example, I like to use a game called “Name 10 Foods”. Client ‘A’ I would ask “name 10 foods that begin with the letter ‘P’”. This client would write the 10 foods within a few minutes beginning with the letter ‘P’. Client B, who has aphasia from a head injury or stroke, may be asked to “SAY TWO foods that begin with the letter ‘P’”. That is each client’s, “Just Right Challenge”.


Using technology as a therapeutic modality to help seniors stay connected to family or current events is also a form of therapeutic recreation. Teaching how to use computers, iPad, email and using the internet are excellent ways to help seniors stay connected and feel accomplished. One example of this is teaching seniors how to use “FaceTime”. Talking to friends and family thousands of miles away used to be saved for the phone. And let’s not forget, it was always cheaper to call after 5.00pm. Now seniors can talk to family and friends whenever they want. Not only that, they can talk to them “face to face”. Grandparents can now see and talk to their grandchildren no matter how far away they are. Using technology, they are able to help them with their homework, as well as maintain and strengthen their relationships. By teaching computers and by using technology, recreational therapy enables the senior to stay connected. Seniors love to see their grandchildren grow up. By incorporating technology lessons, the senior can learn to enjoy seeing photos, videos and emails that would otherwise be out of reach.


Recreational therapy is also used with seniors to combat loneliness and depression. As with all human beings, when seniors are engaged in meaningful activities, they have a sense of accomplishment, stronger sense of self, awareness about their environment and a feeling of connectedness. All of these help to prolong emotional, physical, and mental / cognitive health.


Recreational therapy services reduce primary and secondary disabilities resulting in savings on costly health care services. Secondary disabilities can be depression, loss of physical functioning or anxiety. Active involvement in recreational therapy services can: improve community living skills and reduce the need for extended inpatient hospitalization; improve independent functioning thus reducing demands on health care providers; improve physical functioning and fitness impacting general health and well-being; reduce the occurrence of bedsores and the costs incurred in their treatment; positively impact emotional status to promote recovery with medical treatment; and promote the development of social skills for integration into vocational and leisure endeavors among other outcomes.


The benefits of including recreational therapy services into a persons comprehensive treatment plan are significant. The costs of providing recreational therapy services are reasonable, and the positive results can often prevent costly future secondary disabilities.


California has more than 3 million seniors. That number is sure to grow as aging Baby Boomers have birthdays. More and more seniors are staying in their homes and aging in place. The need for seniors to stay active, both physically and mentally, stay connected to family and friends near and far is where recreational therapy comes in. Providing these services is important for seniors to lead happy and healthy lives.


Finally, the importance of “play”. We’ve talked about the physical benefits, coordination, mobility improvement and psyco-social benefits of recreational therapy. Therapeutic recreation and play can bring joy and happiness to people at any and every stage of life. Play is a gateway to vitality, it’s rewarding, generates optimism, leads to mastery, and accomplishment. No matter the age, when a person is playing and having fun, it is good for his or her overall well-being. Play is vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships.


In conclusion, as a recreational therapist, I have observed an enormous number of benefits with my clients. To summarize, some of the most important ones are:

• Promotes health, well-being and independence

• Improve health status

• Improve cognitive functioning

• Improve psychosocial health and well-being

• Lowers levels of depression / loneliness

• Decreases social isolation

• Helps acceptance of disability

• Improves social interactions

• Improves relationships with family and friends

• Improves Quality of Life

• Helps with decision making skills

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