Recreation therapy is much more than bingo, bowling and birthdays for residents in long-term care homes, and it’s time the provincial government gives that profession the recognition - and funding - it deserves.
That’s the message from Therapeutic Recreation Ontario (TRO), an association representing more than 1,800 practitioners, educators, and students involved in recreation therapy. According to Heidi Slotegraaf, the Sault Ste. Marie-based marketing board chair for TRO, recreation therapists help individuals with disabilities to overcome barriers to their leisure by promoting and encouraging recreation participation, and by providing leisure education.
“The goal, the end goal, is to develop, improve or maintain an appropriate, healthy and independent leisure lifestyle for the clients we serve,” she said.
Slotegraaf tells SooToday that residents in long-term care usually have some kind of physical or cognitive impairment that makes it very difficult for them to continue to do activities that bring them joy and meaning and purpose. Recreational therapists learn about all aspects of every impairment and disability.
“You’re able to then apply the appropriate leisure tools, equipment and resources to help them pursue their leisure. It’s not just a diversional type of thing. It’s not just to pass the time,” she said. “It’s meaning - it’s having meaning and purpose to your leisure time.”
“It makes you feel better about yourself, it increases self-esteem and confidence. It’s just better all around.”
For Slotegraaf, who has worked at the Ontario Finnish Rest Home Association for more than 23 years as an activity aide, recreation therapist and manager of program and support services, there’s a need to fund more recreation therapists in long-term care facilities across the province.
“It would be great to see more funding toward qualified professionals to provide quality recreation programming in long-term care,” she said. “If the government, if they want that - if they are promoting and saying that they want top-quality care, quality of life - then that’s what they need to do, in my opinion.”
In mid-December the Ontario government announced $2 billion in funding per year until 2024-25 to create more than 27,000 new jobs in the long-term care field, including personal support workers, registered nurses and registered practical nurses.
Ontario then announced more than $4 million in late February in order to train 373 personal support workers, in addition to a tuition-free accelerated training program to mobilize even more of those personal support workers provincially.
Therapeutic Recreation Ontario Executive Director Rozalyn Werner-Arcé tells SooToday that recreation therapists have been routinely shut out when it comes to funding for frontline workers in long-term care homes.
“Really, what we’re looking for is recognition of the roles and the skills and qualifications of recreation therapists, and the value of recreation therapy on the lives of residents in long-term care,” said Werner-Arcé. “We’ve seen a number of funding announcements and support for [personal support workers] and nursing, and we think that’s really important. We’re all part of the care team and we’re looking for that same kind of recognition.”
Slotegraaf says that although most long-term care facilities do the best with what they’re given in terms of funding envelopes, more funding is needed for recreation therapy in order for residents in long-term care to find those activities that bring them a sense of meaning and purpose.
“This is the last stage of their lives - they’ve worked hard, they probably had a lot of loss coming into long-term care, and it just should be the best years of their lives,” she said. “And I think that recreation therapy and recreation therapists will provide the appropriate programming to achieve this for them.”