Activities for Nursing Homes and Assisted Living

An individualized, well-thought-out activities program is at the heart of quality life for residents in nursing homes or assisted living residences.

While playing bingo and watching television are the stereotyped ways to pass the time, there are many more engaging activities for older adults. Activity programs can be fun, creative, and stimulating for the mind.

The benefits of activities programs on residents’ health and wellbeing are well-documented. This article will suggest a few types of activities that are great ways to engage older adults.

Overview

Senior man playing cards in nursing home
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Activities are one of the most important parts of person-centered care for older adults in a community living setting. The programs are essential to residents’ quality of life.

What Are the Rules for Activity Programs?

Activity programs in long-term care facilities are governed by federal regulations codified in the Code of Federal Regulations.

The regulation covering activity programs in nursing homes says that the “facility must provide, based on the comprehensive assessment and care plan and the preferences of each resident, an ongoing program to support residents in their choice of activities, both facility-sponsored group and individual activities and independent activities, designed to meet the interests of and support the physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being of each resident, encouraging both independence and interaction in the community.”

The intent is that the facility identifies each resident’s interests and needs and involves the resident in an ongoing program of activities that are designed to appeal to their interests.

The program should also be designed to enhance each resident’s highest practicable level of physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being.

Assisted living activities are not as highly regulated, but many facilities go by the standards that are set for nursing homes.

The number of Americans ages 65 and older is about 52 million and is expected to nearly double by 2060.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Stays

Most older Americans will need at least a short-term stay recovering and rehabbing from medical procedures such as hip, knee, and other joint replacements as well as serious medical conditions like a stroke.

Activity directors need to find ways to not just engage their long-term residents, but those who are only staying for a short time as well.

Music

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Listening to or making music has a powerful effect on memory. Hearing a favorite song can transport you back to another place in time—or at least put a smile on your face.

Older adults can benefit from casually listening to or playing music together or having music therapy.

For older adults who have memory conditions like Alzheimer’s, music can be more than entertainment—it can also be an effective tool for connection and can be part of a treatment plan.

Technology

Getting some help from her granddaughter to speed things along
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Electronics have revolutionized the world of activity programming for independent, assisted living, and long-term care facilities.

While some older adults might hesitate to adopt new tech as quickly as younger people, that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from it.

Here are just a few ways to introduce older adults to tech:

  • Set up a video or text chat to help them stay connected with loved ones
  • Find ways to use video games in their physical fitness routines or even physical therapy
  • Explore safe, informative, and fun ways to use the internet (for example, looking up where they used to live on Google Maps, doing a family history project using a genealogy website, or checking out social media accounts related to hobbies)

Reading

Senior man reading book at home
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For many people of all ages, there’s nothing quite like the excitement of opening the cover of a new book.

Finding a cozy spot and losing yourself in a page-turning mystery novel or the beauty of photos of far-off lands in a coffee table travel book can be a wonderful way to spend an afternoon—or an entire day.

Reading can also help relieve stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and even pain.

Having a lending library available for residents is a great way to make sure they always have something to read. You might also be able to make a weekly trip to the local library part of your routine. A book club is another great group activity.

For residents who can’t read, having a collection of audiobooks or even podcasts can help them feel included and enjoy the benefits of a good story.

Storytelling

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There’s an old saying in journalism: “Everyone has a story.” Activity directors for older adults know firsthand how true the statement is.

That said, how do you draw out the fascinating tales of your residents’ lives in a way that preserves and shares their unique view of history?

The first step is to find ways to help residents tell their life stories. You’ll need to consider each resident’s needs, abilities, and preferences.

For example, a resident who does not hear well may not want to talk about their life but would find it rewarding to write about their experiences.

On the other hand, a resident who struggles to hold a pen or type might have an easier time chatting with someone who could jot things down for them.

Some residents may have an easier time conjuring up memories than others.

For some, open-ended questions will be all it takes. Others might need specific prompts or reminders, like a song, photo, or film, to help jog their memory.

Art

Man painting in art class
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Art projects for older adults can enhance their quality of life and may even help them pick up a new skill.

Some residents might be lifelong painters, sketchers, photographers, or sculptors who just need some modifications to help them continue to work on their projects.

Ceramics is another art activity that offers flexibility. The classes give temporary residents a chance to drop in but can also be an ongoing activity for long-term residents.

Some residents might be discovering these hobbies for the first time as older adults and can be inspired (and encouraged) by their fellow residents.

That said, not everyone is an artist. For residents who aren’t interested or able to make art themselves, art appreciation also helps foster lifelong learning and mental stimulation.

To get everyone involved, you can set up a gallery of artwork by your artists-in-residence for everyone else and their guests to visit.

Science and Current Events

Senior man using telescope at home
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One way that you can engage residents in what’s happening in the world every day is by bringing science to them.

For example, tracking the weather, monitoring tide and moon charts; or measuring rainfall are daily tasks that residents can do for months—if not years.

The natural world is also a source of awe and wonder. If you have the ability to set residents up with tools like telescopes or microscopes, they can feel connected to the “bigger” world of space or the “little” world of microbes.

Memory

Older Black woman looking at photographs
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Like hearing music, our other senses are also stimulating for our minds. Sight, smell, and touch can all invoke memories.

While incorporating memory care that engages all the senses into an activities program will be especially beneficial to residents with memory conditions, all residents can benefit from these experiences.

One example of an activity to try is making memory mats. These are table mats that residents can cover with photos and words to prompt memories and start conversations.

Cooking can be another way to engage the senses.

Nothing says home like the smell, sight, and taste of a familiar recipe. A favorite food someone’s parents cooked when they were a child is likely to induce a pleasant feeling of nostalgia.

Physical Activity

Senior Citizens Taking Exercise Class
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Physical activity is important for lifelong health, but many older adults have special considerations for the types that they safely do.

It’s key to find exercises that are more than just safe and beneficial—they also should be enjoyable for residents.

One example that works well for groups is Chair Chi.

The exercise program is based on the principles of Tai Chi Chuan but is designed for older adults living in retirement communities, assisted living, personal care homes, nursing homes, and adult day centers.

Lifelong Learning

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While they may not have been in a classroom in decades, many older adults will say they never stopped learning.

While your activities program can include classes throughout the year, you might want to consider a seasonal program offering classes that older adults can take over the summer, such as gardening, belly dancing, foreign languages, flower pressing, photography, art techniques, and ethics.

One-on-One Activities

Some residents might not be able to participate in group activities because they can’t leave their rooms. You may also have residents who would prefer to do things one-on-one because they find groups too overwhelming.

Finding ways to engage residents individually is just as important as creating group activities.

For some older adults, simply being with them and spending time with them might be all they want or need. Just sitting quietly and reading or doing a hobby can provide companionship and combat loneliness.

Other residents might be up for—and eager to have—a chat. You can talk to them about their loved ones, ask them to tell you stories from “the good old days,” or get their thoughts on current events.

If you have a resident who isn’t much for small talk but wants something purposeful to do, think about how to make group activities work for just one person.

For example, an arts and craft project that the group is doing might be something your in-room resident can do on their own.

Journaling, writing down their stories, or using tech can also be something they might be comfortable doing independently.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Population Reference Bureau. Fact sheet: aging in the United States.

  2. National Institute on Aging. Participating in the arts creates paths to healthy aging.

By Anthony Cirillo
Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, ABC, is a writer, consultant, and professional speaker who helps family caregivers and individuals make educated aging decisions.