News & Resources

Mary on Rec Therapy

Aug 16, 2023

Jay Burkhardt

We caught up with Mary Branzelle, CTRS and Program Director here at Circle Center. Mary is the mastermind behind our recreational therapy program. In addition to creating it, she also facilitates much of it, oversees a team of recreational therapists, and coordinates with our nursing and social work teams to ensure our participants have a good day, every day.

Learn more about the heart and soul of our Center–what we refer to as “rec therapy”–from our resident expert, Mary.

Can you define recreational therapy for we lay people?

I prefer to call it therapeutic recreation. It’s a form of therapy that helps people engage or re-engage their leisure skills which helps to improve their social, physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing. Rec therapy is based on the understanding that every person needs to take time for themselves and participate in things of interest to them as part of a healthy lifestyle.

What are your goals for the older adults we serve?

We have several goals, with the most fundamental being to improve their quality of life. In addition, our activities are designed to promote socialization, physical fitness, stimulate cognitive skills, and promote self-esteem–all of which are key to healthy aging. Our programming also promotes independence, particularly for that person who maybe has lost the ability to do things on their own. They can come here and participate in the things that they find enjoyable and regain a sense of independence. 

Can you give an example of an activity and its benefits?

Just one? Let’s talk self-esteem for older adults. Our reminiscence activities help participants feel validated about their achievements in life–sometimes they fail to remember that they did contribute well to their communities, to their families, and to their social circles. And in some cases, it reminds them that they can get back to some of those things in the future.

I think there can be a misconception about rec therapy, that it seems like, well, just fun and games. Can you speak to that?

Thanks for asking! I think if you’re not in this field, it might be easy to discount the value of things that appear simple—like a puzzle, or art, listening to music, or playing a game. In reality, though, each of our activities has purpose and goals for the participants involved. The programming varies in each of our activity rooms so that we can better meet each individual’s cognitive, social, spiritual, and physical needs over the course of a day.

So for example, bingo seems like just a game, but really, depending upon the setting and who I’m working with, bingo can be about improving hand coordination, particularly here at the Center. It can also be about cooperative play. I’ve worked in settings outside of senior adults and bingo was critical for building trust, believe it or not. The populations I was serving back then needed to know that the numbers I was calling and saying during the game were true. In the beginning, they didn’t trust me so I had to show them the numbers I called out. As time progressed, they came to trust in me and gave me permission not to show them the numbers. Believe or not, that was huge progress for that particular population. And it started with a simple game of bingo.

With so many participants here each day, how do you make sure each individual’s needs are met?

It can be a challenge to make sure, with 50+ participants each day, that each person is getting the most out of each activity. There are three keys to our program’s success and the first happens before a person even starts coming to the Center, with a one-on-one evaluation. This is where I and other members of our team, get to know the prospective participant–what they can do, what they enjoy doing, what they used to like doing but haven’t been able to do in a while. The second key is, once a person decides to come to the Center, our multi-disciplinary team develops a “Plan of Care” (POC) with them and their caregiver. It’s kind of like a roadmap to guide us all through their experience at the Center.

The final key to ensuring every participant benefits from our rec therapy programming, is flexibility on our part as a team. All of us that lead programs continuously adjust throughout the day based on the moods and desires of the participants. If we see someone who seems withdrawn or not engaging in an activity because it’s not of interest to them that day, we shift gears. Having the good foundation I described above for each participant, coupled with getting to know them better and our experience, means we can attempt, usually successfully, to draw that person into the activity or into something more engaging for them at that time.

Some days feel like a juggling act, for sure, but seeing someone enjoying our programming and/or in conversation with another participant or a staff member, or enjoying a walk with a volunteer–makes what we do worth it all!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Yes, I want to stress the importance of encouraging good mental health to improving someone’s quality of life. As we age and life changes for us, it is common to become stressed or anxious. Most of our participants have some form of cognitive issue such as Alzheimer’s or dementia which, understandably, can cause lots of anxiety for them. We see so many examples every day proving that therapeutic recreation–what, to some, may seem like simple activities–promotes both psychological and physical wellbeing.