How recreation therapists can support persons living with dementia and their care partners.
This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.
One of the keys to living well with dementia is creating a positive support network. The first members of this care team are most often family and friends but adding the right professionals can be vital to accessing useful resources and navigating the often-complicated health-care system.
Adding a therapeutic recreation professional to your support network can bring unexpected outcomes. February is Therapeutic Recreation Awareness Month, which provides an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at this evolving profession.
"Therapeutic recreation professionals work as detectives to gather clues from their client’s past interests, current abilities and future needs. Putting these pieces together, they identify recreation and leisure activities that will engage the client."
– Christine Chipman, CTRS
What is therapeutic recreation?
Also referred to as recreation therapy, therapeutic recreation is a health-care profession that uses recreation and leisure to support individuals to improve and maintain their health, independence and quality of life. Therapeutic recreation professionals work in many areas of practice including mental health, physical rehabilitation and community programs, but a large focus of their work is with older adults, specifically people living with dementia.
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What do therapeutic recreation professionals do?
Therapeutic recreation professionals work as detectives to gather clues from their client’s past interests, current abilities and future needs. Putting these pieces together, they identify recreation and leisure activities that will engage the client and address their individualized goals.
It is common that people living with dementia and their care partners first meet therapeutic recreation when they move into a long-term care setting. They may receive a calendar of events listing exercise programs, social gatherings and special events taking place in the care home. Those unfamiliar with therapeutic recreation may view these activities as entertainment and ways to “keep busy”. What is often misunderstood is the long list of health benefits (see below) that come from engaging in meaningful recreation and leisure.
"Therapeutic recreation professionals are skilled at adapting activities and creating welcoming environments that foster genuine social connections."
– Christine Chipman
How do you find a therapeutic recreation professional?
As the profession of therapeutic recreation grows and the standard of care for those living with dementia improves, therapeutic recreation is evolving to become more accessible to the public. Many therapeutic recreation professionals who specialize in working with those living with dementia are opening private practices. They can now be hired privately by clients and caregivers to provide individualized and direct support. Also, these interventions can be provided in the earlier stages of dementia to support clients to continue living independently in the community, maintain abilities and slow the progression of the disease.
When hiring a private therapeutic recreation professional, it is important to verify their credentials and liability insurance. The most common title is Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) issued by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC). This certification ensures the therapeutic recreation professional is qualified to deliver the programs they offer and protects the clients they serve.
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5 Benefits of Therapeutic Recreation
Maintaining functional skills
There are often hidden benefits within recreation and leisure activities that support the health and well-being of participants. For example, engaging in a simple activity such as painting works to maintain fine motor skills and concentration.
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These skills can be transferred to functional tasks needed to preserve independence such as buttoning a shirt, locking a door and performing personal care tasks.
Therapeutic recreation professionals are skilled at finding the benefits of an activity and matching them to the needs and goals of their clients.
When we think of recreation and leisure, we sometimes view these activities as frivolous or self-indulgent. However, adding purpose to these activities can make them fulfilling and meaningful.
A therapeutic recreation professional may add meaning to a woodworking project by asking the participant to repair a broken toy, or a client may become more engaged with the coffee group if they are asked to help set the table each week.
Building social connections
An important protective factor in managing dementia is keeping nurturing relationships and positive social support. Joining in recreation and leisure activities can be a catalyst for generating shared experiences, sparking conversation, finding common interests and building friendships.
Therapeutic recreation professionals are skilled at adapting activities and creating welcoming environments that foster genuine social connections.
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In her book The Power of Fun, author Catherine Price asks, “when is the last time you had fun?”.
She observes, “regardless of the activity, the result was the same: You laughed and smiled. You felt liberated from your responsibilities. When it was over, the experience left you energized, nourished, and refreshed.”
Therapeutic recreation weaves joy and fun into everyday life and can have a direct impact on generating a positive outlook and improving mood.
Taking time and space for self care is vital to avoiding caregiver burnout. But how do you trust that your loved one with dementia is being adequately cared for while you take time for yourself?
Therapeutic recreation professionals can provide quality respite for caregivers by offering engaging and goal-oriented programs.
If a person living with dementia is hesitant to receive care from an outside provider, they may be open to in-home exercise, art or social programs delivered by a therapeutic recreation professional. This could be the first step to building trust with outside care providers, which will be beneficial as care needs increase.
Christine Chipman is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist with a focus on supporting healthy aging in older adults. She founded Time Well Spent Senior Wellness to bring exercise and engaging activities into the homes of isolated seniors. She delivers meaningful recreation and leisure programs to support independence and improve her clients’ quality of life.