Bingo! It’s not always a winner

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By Amy Temperley

When’s the last time you heard, “Looking for something fun to do a few times a week?” “Make friends! Find a sense of purpose!” – and it turned out to be bingo?

Have you ever been to a bingo game? Here’s what happens: A bunch of people sit in a room together, staring at a piece of paper. Someone at the front of the room yells out numbers and letters. Don’t talk to your neighbor. She’s serious about this game, and she’ll shut down conversation pretty quickly. The prize for your participation in this exciting event? A donated toy, a nickel, a piece of fruit…

Woo hoo! Let’s do it again on Wednesday. Haven’t we always dreamed of the days when we could play bingo several times week?

A long time ago, I was a nursing home activity director

My first job out of college was coordinating activities at a small, rural nursing home – seasonal parties, arts and crafts, bingo 3 times a week, reading the newspaper aloud (for current events), and the occasional visiting musician or entertainer (as the budget allowed). Now it’s 30 years later, and programming for older adults remains unchanged in many residential communities. 

Activities can be rushed, repetitive, and – I promise you – not the activity director’s fault.

The nursing home industry began around 1935 and in the 1960s, the industry recognized the need for a staff person to fill residents’ days with activities. Since regulations did not specify educational requirements, some facilities employed housekeepers, volunteers or nurse aides, and activities in these early years were referred to as the 3 B’s: bingo, Bible study and birthday ladies.

Not much thought was given to whether activities were actually beneficial for a resident’s mind, body or spirit, or if it even was what residents really wanted.

Driven from passionate to passive

We can’t blame activity directors. Activity professionals are overwhelmed. To provide activities, directors must create and schedule activities, get residents to where they are offered, lead the activities and help some residents to participate. Meanwhile, residential communities are consistently understaffed and overburdened with paperwork. At some sites, the activity professional must also help with reception, meals and other tasks.  

Creating an engaging, smart activity can take hours – hours that just aren’t available to even the most enthusiastic professional. Such activities also take funds, and some communities allot limited budgets for resident activities, some as little as $50 a month for more than 100 people. 

Try offering an engaging program like painting, and you quickly learn that $50 doesn’t buy much paint, let alone canvases. Adult coloring books it is! Crayons are so much cheaper.

Most people enter this profession with great gusto and a deep passion to contribute to older adults’ quality of life. Sadly, after a while they are forced to realize that repeating a passive activity like bingo is just easier for everyone. Eventually the residents also begin to accept that this is as good as it gets.

Change starts now, with each of us

We must start by realizing that we don’t just go from a life engaging with the world to one in which bingo or some other passive activity is your daily goal. Age and physical or cognitive impairments do not change the fact that we are human beings who need to connect with others and have opportunities for personal growth.

Bingo in itself is not the problem. Senior living companies need to place more value on the role of the activity professional in their community and see their role as a crucial component in services. It’s not an “added value” -– an engaging, smart activity program is crucial to the well-being of residents. 

If and when you seek a residential community, whether as an individual or a caregiver, ask hard questions about activity programming. How are programs developed? What opportunities do residents have for physical fitness, brain training, learning, socialization, and laughter? Don’t just take a tour and taste the food! Attend an activity and ask residents what they think.

Finally, we should all take time to thank activity professionals for what they provide. It is a hard, tiring and often thankless job to provide activities for sometimes hundreds of people with differing interests, abilities and temperaments. Yet, because of their close relationships with residents, activity professionals are often the first line of defense in noticing when someone is ill, depressed or isolated. Their involvement and intervention can truly be life-changing.

Amy Temperley, MAHS, Founder/Owner, Aging is Cool

Aging is Cool provides smart, engaging activities for older adults in a variety of community and residential settings to help older adults Stay Strong, Stay Smart and Stay Social.

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