LeadingAge Magazine · May/June 2015 • Volume 05 • Number 03

Culture Change Requires Forward-Thinking Activities Professionals

May 10, 2015 | by Michael McCann and Jeff Rose

As a provider adopts a commitment to person-centered care, these authors write, the activity department’s role in changing an organization’s culture is too often overlooked.

Culture change within an aging-services organization is typically defined as developing a person-centered care philosophy. This leads to various strategic choices. One example could be a health care center that changes the way it structures care, perhaps adopting a neighborhood model. It may also involve restructuring an organizational chart or reinvesting resources in customer service training.

When facilitating change within an organization, one department that seems to be overlooked or, worse, taken for granted, is the activity department (or, as we call it, the life enrichment department). This department should be the foundation of culture change as well as a key component in sustaining that change over time. We have found, when consulting with activity departments throughout the country, that organizations can find themselves stuck within their own paradigms, using outdated models, systems and philosophies.

Too many times, for instance, activity professionals are planning the same party with the same entertainment and the same decorations. It’s easy to book the same entertainment because you don’t have the time to listen or research a new musician or band. Yet that musician’s CD buried under the pile on your desk could present the “wow” factor you need for this year’s holiday program. It just takes a commitment to use strategic planning and creative leadership to enable life enrichment teams to find time to properly plan events in order to make them fresh, exciting and impactful. It also requires leaders to fully commit to a proper, comprehensive life enrichment program.

When planning for social activities a good litmus test of an event is what we do at home with our family and friends. Party decorations that are paper cutouts of cartoon characters one would find in a day care center for children are not age-appropriate decorations for adults. It’s not just about doing the same old parties and programs, but emulating what you do in your own life. This is where the life enrichment team embraces their own passions and blends them into the programming and connects the opportunities to the residents.

First and foremost, this passion should be a commitment to wellness and fitness for all residents. It’s incongruent for activity professionals to try and promote and recruit resident participation in a fitness class when they are not living a balanced life themselves. Many continuing care retirement communities build wonderful fitness facilities with aquatic centers and state-of-the-art equipment, staffed by exercise professionals that track and record data on a resident’s progression. Yet when you move through the continuum, you do not always find the same commitment to fitness in health care. Many times the fitness programs just become something for residents to do on a calendar without becoming part of a care plan, with goals created and data collected. Most if not all issues residents are facing, cognitive or physical, have fitness and wellness as key components in the treatment plan.

Over the past three years we have had the honor to work with various activity departments throughout the country either through speaking at conferences, participating in national and local activity associations or facilitating leadership workshops. We have found that many fitness classes are facilitated by staff with little knowledge about fitness, correct form or movement. (The FITT Principle is something that those leading such classes should understand.) These classes become filler on a calendar, and opportunities to use the fitness class as part of the care plan become lost.

When we talk about the body, we also have to discuss the spirit that drives it. A resident’s spirituality should also be taken into account as a critical part of activity programs. There is a distinct difference between religion and spirituality. A definition of spirituality we like is that of the University of Maryland Medical Center: “a belief in a power operating in the universe that is greater than oneself; a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures; and an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life and the development of personal, absolute values.”

The life enrichment team should understand that everyone is on his or her own personal journey and at the core of person-centered care is facilitating opportunities for each resident’s faith journey. While part of that journey may be participation within a specific religion, it also presents opportunities to go beyond that. This might mean discovering new and different faith traditions, talking about the archetypes of aging, working with intergenerational teams and connecting and impacting those that need help or guidance through outreach programs staffed by your residents. As you can imagine, spiritual programming can go deeper than the weekly worship service or Bible study that appears on the calendar.

As spiritual programming based in person-centered care goes beyond worship services, it can then help bring culture change to your volunteer program. Traditional volunteer programs consist of people coming from outside your community to volunteer and help out within your activity department. A change that requires very little financial overhead would be mobilizing your residents to volunteer within the community at large. There are no doubt a variety of volunteer projects in your area in which your residents can participate. You can take your residents to them, or come up with projects you can complete within your own community. This also helps your organization network with local community groups and programs. All it takes some calls to local schools, not-for-profits or religious organizations to see if they have any opportunities for volunteering or intergenerational projects your residents can help with or share their knowledge and wisdom with. Not only do your residents benefit from impacting others, they become advocates and ambassadors for your marketing message. In other words, change the volunteer paradigm and fulfill an emotional dimension of wellness for you residents by facilitating volunteering.

The life enrichment program should be no stranger to new technology. From using websites as resources, to integrating new devices like tablets and video game systems, to introducing technology that connects people, such as social media and video chatting services, the possibilities are endless. Make sure the life enrichment team spends some time getting acquainted with new technology and strategizing how to implement it to impact the lives we serve.

Change is not easy, and it takes effort to make it happen. A piece of the puzzle to help make the change easier is having the right staff. Programs and events at your community should be conducted by life enrichment professionals who have training and expertise in the field. Part of culture change is accepting that life enrichment is serious business led by professionals that have education and degrees behind them, and that those programs cannot be facilitated by “just anyone.” Sometimes you can find people like this in your organization. Sometimes you might turn to your local park district, senior center or YMCA for recruitment.

By taking a look at the core processes of your life enrichment program, making a commitment to wellness, and promoting strategic thinking and leadership, your organization will have a comprehensive program that helps residents become the strongest versions of themselves. It promotes a philosophy of going beyond activities of daily living and helping each resident be alive. This promotes independence within each resident and leadership within your teams and organization.