Summer Camp For Seniors

August 1, 2009

by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

While the client base at many elder-oriented facilities becomes more upscale, sophisticated, and well-educated, activity rosters remain numbingly downscale and unimaginative. Do we want our elders consigned to kindergartens?

When I moved to California a few years back, my attorney father asked me to look up a former client – let’s call her Janet. She was a lovely, vibrant, exceptionally intelligent lady, a retired social studies teacher who read voraciously, enjoyed boating and fishing, maintained a chic appearance, and delighted in intellectual pursuits of all sorts.

But a year or so after I met her, Janet, by then in her early 80s, suffered a series of falls, followed by a minor stroke. Despite her vociferous protests, her son and daughter, who were largely supporting her, determined she could no longer care for herself and placed her in what they believed was an upscale nursing home.

I remember visiting Janet there, a few weeks into her residence. And on its surface, her facility was upscale, indeed – spacious bedrooms, attractive public spaces, excellent food, and a competent medical and nursing staff.

But Janet was thoroughly miserable. For one thing, this distinguished, educated lady felt she was continually “talked down to” by the caregiving and recreational staff. “They treat us as if we’re three years old,” she told me. “Ooooh, honey. Oooooh, sweetie. Can I hold your juice for you? Do you think you can walk all the way to the dining room? May I help with your shoelaces? What a big girl! We’re so proud of you!”

Janet may have been exaggerating. But this expensive, upscale facility somehow seemed to believe that a proper diet of intellectual stimulation for the former schoolteachers, lawyers, physicians, and businesspeople who could afford to live there should consist of endless games of bingo and balloon volleyball, craft projects like stringing beads and making ashtrays, or a memorable activity called “Senior Orchestra,” where hapless elders were forced to shake toy tambourines and beat miniature deerhide drums, while an obese woman in a striped shirt belted out “tunes my Granny used to like” and urged them to sing along.

Pining for her former life of museums, opera, sailing, and dinner parties, Janet became more and more despondent as the weeks went by. She died less than six months later – some would say of a broken heart. But that’s in the unenlightened past, you say? If you believe that’s true, I suggest you make some casual visits to a few deluxe senior sites near you.

You will probably be impressed by their physical appearance. As a senior services professional, I’m invited to parties, events, and tours at assisted-living and independent-living venues all the time, and there are quite a few of them at which I’d be happy taking my summer vacation! Some suites are half the size of my house – or larger – with tasteful furniture, comfortable beds, tons of closet space, and chi-chi bathrooms. There are jacuzzi rooms, gardens to stroll in, in-house movie theaters like the Hollywood moguls have, and private dining rooms you can book for family parties. And often, the food is restaurant-caliber.

Wow! you’ll say. If my Mom or Dad ever decides to opt for assisted-living, this is the place for them! Not so fast. Look at that row of people with walkers, sitting around looking bored to pieces. Notice the pretty, perfectly-coifed lady roaming the halls with a catatonic stare. Or the well-groomed elderly gentleman, slowly sipping a cup of coffee, while tears run down his face. Well, lethargy’s normal in old age, you’ve heard. Boredom is normal. Even a degree of despondency is expected, with all the losses elders have experienced.

Indeed, the statistics on depression and the elderly are disturbing, with some research reporting that up to 70 percent of those 80 and above may suffer at least mild depression in clinical terms.

But how much of this reported clinical depression – let alone simple lethargy and garden-variety boredom – is due to physical ailments, the aftershock of catastrophic losses, or merely “getting old,” and how much is due to the absence of intellectual and social stimulation? Just think back to the times you’ve been laid up in bed with the flu or sidelined in a cast with a broken bone. The lack of activity, lack of social interaction, and inability to practice your normal everyday routine probably made you pretty darn despondent and lethargic, too – even if you were 22 years old!

Yet this is the environment the majority of people at elder sites have to cope with for years on end. If you doubt this, talk to some residents about their typical days – or simply request the roster of activities at the site at which your relatives reside. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be shocked.

Functional Illiteracy, Anyone? I have a pilfered recreation schedule from an upscale site I visited right in front of me. About 90 percent of the activities listed are either games or rudimentary arts and crafts projects – by which I don’t mean plein air painting under the aegis of a qualified instructor, but rather “Make a Seashell Necklace” and “Decorate Your Own Coffee Mug.”

There are also exciting supervised field trips every week – NOT! Yes, the modern fleet of buses such sites maintain do take residents off-site frequently. But not to museums or symphony concerts or historical sites. No, they take them for a gala lunch at Red Lobster or a half-hour shopping trip to Dollar Tree stores. It’s as if the average recreation director believed that when people turn 80, their education, interests, and prior life experiences fall by the wayside and they miraculously slide to the nadir of the intelligence scale and the bottom of the social ladder.

Perhaps that’s because some recreation staff members are already there. “I don’t understand it,” one of my friends, a geriatric social worker, said to me over lunch the other day. “Is there some kind of Recreation Director Mafia that controls things, demanding that sites hire the least qualified people they can possibly find?”

I can sympathize with her frustration. While most assisted-living and nursing home sites employ excellent general managers, nursing directors, and marketing personnel, some recreation staff members seem to have shaky qualifications at best. “She’s pleasant,” was the best explanation I could get from a super-smart marketing director about his colleague, the recreation manager at one of the highest-end assisted-living venues in a neighboring county.

But I know for a fact that this woman, who is over 40, not a “kid,” is functionally illiterate, a term that, as a Ph.D., I do not throw around lightly. I have held on to a series of letters from this woman, with whom I corresponded about a particular program, in case I ever summon up the nerve to send them to her employer, who would undoubtedly fire her on the spot.

Derry, let me call her, believes that all plural nouns are formed with an apostrophe and an s – and worse, that all verbs of any sort are formed with an apostrophe and an s. So she writes about senior’s and elder’s and program’s and room’s and meal’s. She relates how she run’s her program’s and schedule’s her activity’s. She also does not know the differences among there, they’re, and their or among to, too, and two.

I seriously do not understand how this woman got past fourth grade, if she did. Nor why someone decided that she should run a recreation program for retired doctors, teachers, and small business owners, the typical residents at this beautiful and costly facility. One hears that she’s quite good at pottery.

Or take Kenny, the 20-something recreation manager at a slightly less posh but very physically comfortable facility I’ve visited. Kenny has a TV game show fetish, it seems. His idea of an intellectually-stimulating morning for residents is playing simulated versions of Wheel of Fortune at 9, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire at 10, and Family (Resident) Feud at 11. I expect him to initiate The Amazing (Walker) Race any day now.

Then there was the time I was visited an exceptionally pretty site in the New York suburbs near a lovely county park. Residents had been crowded into a secondary dining area with an impromptu stage to be subjected to the crooning or screeching, depending on your tolerance level, of someone I strongly suspected was the Director’s Brother-in-Law George. Now I don’t know this for sure. But the crooner/screecher in question was a small, round man with a bad toupee, with all the charm and talent one might expect to find among performers at a very cheap hotel in the Catskills.

When we walked past this performance venue, my guide, the marketing manager, happened to ask a trio of blue-haired ladies standing on the sidelines how they were enjoying the festivities. One just rolled her eyes. Another sighed deeply. And the third chimed in distraught that “I used to have season tickets to the Opera.”

So What Would You Do About It, Smarty-Pants? Other than immediately axe Derry, Kenny, and whoever hired Crooner George? Well, the first thing I’d do – and fast! – is ask residents on a regular basis exactly what they think of my facility’s activities roster: what they like, what they don’t like, what new activities they think should be introduced.

In fact, I might poll residents’ children, too, especially if they’re picking up part of their parents’ tab. No matter how posh a facility is, resident retention is always a major concern – or should be – especially among healthier residents, who can pick up and leave if they find greener pastures elsewhere. And if the kids are footing part of the bill, it’s likely they have a say-so in such decisions. Beyond that, I’d be proactive, rather than reactive, in coming up with activities that residents may not suggest on their own – but which they’re likely to enjoy once they’re in place.

I’d concentrate on activities meant to exercise and broaden intellectual capacities, not stunt them. Instead of silly kiddie craft projects, book lecturers on art history and legitimate instructors of painting and fine arts. Instead of game show knockoffs, have in-house courses on memory retention and keeping one’s intellect sharp, perhaps followed by a challenging trivia tournament that relatives and friends can attend. (The Former Schoolteachers versus The Retired Physicians?)

Crooner George may appeal to some. But you can easily bring classical, folk, or jazz musicians of real talent and skill into to your facility – sometimes for free. Music schools, university music departments, or community arts groups may have programs in place to provide top-notch performers to senior sites at little or no cost.

For sources of interesting lectures that can stretch residents’ minds and increase their zest for lifelong learning, cultivate local historical societies, museums, and business associations. Ask an antiques dealer to bring in examples of porcelain or specialty collections and talk about them. Have a university historian make a presentation dealing with some aspect of his research of special interest to the over-80 set, like the development of suburbia after World War Two or sports stars of the 30s and 40s.

Rather than balloon volleyball and other grotesquely demeaning “fitness” activities, bring in educated and skilled trainers who have actually researched which exercises and regimens help the elderly regain strength, agility, and a sense of physical well-being. And when you schedule ‘field trips” for residents, find out where they’d actually like to go – I’ll bet it won’t be Red Lobster or Dollar Tree! Again, many non-profit groups, museums, and other venues will go out of their way to cater to groups of elderly people as part of their “community outreach programs,” a fancy way of saying it makes them look good!

Chances are your facility can schedule many outside programs for free or at very little cost. Consider approaching museums, botanical gardens, historic house sites, and even some sports stadiums. Or treat residents to a luncheon cruise, a fishing trip, or a picnic at a county or state park.

In other words, let what you and your own parents have enjoyed and would enjoy be your touchstone for what typical residents – paritcularly those in upscale sites – would probably enjoy, too.

There’s no excuse for a lack of respect towards elderly residents. And treating them like kindergarten tots has no place in the world of senior services.

About This Publication: I gave permission for my article Summer Camp For Seniors to be printed at Baby Boomers Knowledge Center, where it appeared on April 11, 2009.

Since I retain all legal rights to this story, I have decided to “bring it home” to EllenInteractive.

Readers who enjoyed this story might want to read “Recession? What Recession? Not in the Senior Services Sector” at:

Also look at the wide-ranging interview with Ellen, in which she talks about her idea for a “University for Elders” at:

And for Ellen’s new – and already controversial – series, Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: