What is Recreation Therapy and the Top 10 Activities that You Can Do

What is Recreation Therapy

Since working in the field, the most common question asked is “what is recreation therapy?”, followed by “what types of programs do you do?” and “do you work mostly with seniors?”

The provincial governing body, Therapeutic Recreation Ontario (TRO), defines recreation therapy as ;

a process that utilizes functional intervention, education and recreation participation to enable persons with physical, cognitive, emotional and/or social limitations to acquire and/or maintain the skills, knowledge and behaviours that will allow them to enjoy their leisure optimally, function independently with the least amount of assistance and participate as fully as possible in society. Therapeutic recreation intervention is provided by trained professionals in clinical and/or community settings (TRO, 2003).

As a recreation therapist, our primary goal is to teach individuals different ways they can enjoy their leisure time and to improve their cognitive, physical, emotional and social skills (Datillo, 2000).

What does this mean for the aging population? By engaging in various activities, it could mean living independently at home longer, being able to do tasks such as walking to the grocery store to pick up a few items, or taking fewer prescription medications.

Recreation therapists follow guidelines established by TRO to create a beneficial program for their clients. The first step is to administer a recreation assessment, which assists the therapist in determining the strengths, needs and interests of an individual. This is the base from which an intervention plan is created (TRO Standards of Practice, 2003). In many ways, an intervention plan is an action plan. The therapist will work with the individual and their family members to set various goals, and the role of the therapist will be to develop programs to ensure that the individual’s needs and goals are being met.

When developing programs, the recreation therapist must keep in mind the six health domains. These six domains cognitive, emotional, physical, social, spiritual and vocational, represent all aspects of an individual which portray them as a whole person. This is often referred to as holistic health.

When creating therapeutic programs, the goals for older adults frequently include promoting social interaction, cognitive stimulation, providing opportunities to learn new skills and allowing opportunities for self-expression. However, by participating in a variety of recreation activities and programs, the benefits are endless. Individuals may experience a reduction in anxiety, stress, and depression, a decreased focus on pain, reduced hospital stays, a boost of independence, self-confidence and self-esteem.

As the baby boomer generation begins to age/approaches retirement age, it is important to keep in mind various activities that will keep them engaged and interacting with their surroundings. Throughout my career from working with seniors, here is a top 10 list of the most popular activities and their benefits.

  1. 1. Bridge and other card games

Older adults can be seen spending all afternoon playing card games such as Bridge, Cribbage and Euchre. These games require skills such concentration, strategizing and working with a teammate to outscore the opponent. A study conducted at Berkeley University showed that by playing bridge regularly, it boosted the immune system by producing T cells, which the body uses to fight infection. Other benefits of playing card games include keeping the brain stimulated and alert, and keeping the memory active (Smith, 2010). Moreover, it is a great way to meet new people.

  1. 2. Learning About the Internet

Older adults have a fascination with new technologies such as computers and the internet. Born and raised in an era that had limited technology, they want to jump onto the bandwagon that the rest of the world seems to be on. Seniors are eager to learn basic skills such as using email and search engines such as Google. The main benefit of learning to use the computer is staying in touch with family and friends who may live out of town. They are then able to exchange news and photos, and may even participate in live video chat with Skype to stay connected.

  1. 3. Volunteering

Older adults are able to give back to their community by volunteering. They have a great deal of knowledge and experiences that they are able to share with others, and at the same time, they become more engaged with their surroundings. Benefits of volunteering include a lower risk of depression, increases in physical activity, improvements in memory, and an increase in their social network (Stibich, 2009).

  1. 4. Outings

It is important to ensure that older adults are able to get out, either independently or with supervision, as their day-to-day routines can be very mundane. An outing can range from a walk in the park, going to the grocery store or shopping mall, or going to a local theatre production. Benefits include feelings of independence, a sense of freedom, and reduced boredom (Agarwal, 2008).

  1. 5. Arts & Crafts

At first glance, an arts and crafts program for older adults may seem juvenile, so it is important that the recreation therapist chooses a project that is age appropriate. Projects can be as simple as painting or drawing, or can be more complex, requiring several sessions to complete.

A study carried out at George Washington University looked at the effects of cultural and creative activities amongst older adults between the ages of 65-100. Those who were engaged showed improved health, required less medication, and experienced less social isolation.

  1. 6. Exercise

We often hear “What is good for the body, is good for the brain,” and it still rings true when you reach the golden years, and how a person ages is determined both by genetics and lifestyle choices. It is important that older adults participate in regular physical activities, such as daily walks or a fitness program specifically designed for older adults. Studies suggest that exercise can lower the risk of dementia by 50-60%, and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 60% (Eckmann, 2011). Other benefits include enhanced mobility, flexibility and balance, and decrease the risk of falling.

  1. 7. Music

Music can work wonders with older adults with dementia, depression, or aggressive behaviours, and I have seen first hand how a person’s mood can completely change simply by hearing the music that they enjoy. Music has positive effects on everyone, the young and old alike. To benefit most from music therapy, music choice is of utmost importance. Music from an individual’s generation or that they can identify should be chosen. Music has almost immediate effects on people. Within minutes you will be able to see the individual’s mood change, they will engage in social interaction, and they may even start to sing along.

Benefits of music therapy include increased awareness and concentration, improved memory and recall, higher self-esteem, decreased pain, and will promote relaxation.

  1. 8. News

We all read the news, whether online or in the newspaper. It is a way for us to stay connected with the world. The same applies for older adults. It helps them to stay connected, to know what current world issues are, and keeps them informed. Benefits of reading, watching, or hearing the news regularly includes reality orientation, cognitive stimulation, improved memory recall, and improved mood.

  1. 9. Animal Therapy

There are cases when an individual does not enjoy participating in group activities, dislikes socializing, and have become socially isolated. For a recreation therapist, developing programs for these individuals can be challenging. However, these individuals may benefit most from animal therapy.

There is a natural tendency for humans to form relationships with animals, even when the animal is not their own pet. This natural tendency is what allows the relationships between humans and animals to form quickly. Though there is a strong entertainment component in animal therapy, an individual can be stimulated in multiple ways, including tactile, auditory, visual and olfactory stimulation (Chandler, 2005). Other benefits of animal therapy include lower blood pressure, reduced stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression, and increase confidence and socialization (Allado, 2011).

  1. 10. Intergenerational Programming

Intergenerational programming is a way of bringing the younger generation together with an older generation allowing them opportunities to interact. This type of programming benefits older adults, youth, and the community. By sharing their knowledge and experiences with youth, older adults can feel that they have impacted someone else’s life. It also encourages cultural exchange between the groups, allowing the youth to learn from the older adults and vice versa. Most importantly, benefits for older adults include enhanced socialization, will stimulate learning, increase emotional support, and improve overall health (Generations United, 2002).

The role of a recreation therapist is diverse with endless options and opportunities for programs and activities for every individual. While we have discussed the top 10 programs used, it is not a comprehensive list. There are multitudes of programs that can easily be developed and facilitated to suit the needs of individuals. Please get in touch to discuss how recreation therapy can benefit your life or the life of someone you know.


Allado, C. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.seniorscarehomes.com


Agarwal, A. (2008, November 6). Outings for the elderly: A walk in the park?. Retrieved from http://ezinearticles.com


Chandler, C. (2005). Animal assisted therapy in counseling. New York, NY: Routledge.


Dattilo, J. (2000). Facilitation techniques in therapeutic recreation. (p. 8). State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.


Eckmann, T. (2011). Exercise and the aging brain. The Journal on Active Aging, 10(6), 20-28.


Generations United (2002). Young and Old Serving Together: Meeting Community Needs Through Intergenerational Partnerships. Washington DC


McGrady, S. (2011, June 9). Proven benefits of art programs for seniors living in retirement communities. Retrieved from http://elderlife.blogspot.ca


Smith, P. (2010, January 10). The health benefits of playing bridge. Retrieved from http://ezinearticles.com


Stibich, M. (2009, March 16). Volunteer for health benefits and help society too: Volunteering improves the health of seniors. Retrieved from http://longevity.about.com


TRO standards of practice. (2003). Retrieved from http://trontario.org/index.asp


(n.d.). Retrieved from http://musicworkswonders.org/seniors/conditions-benefits


(n.d.). Retrieved from http://trontario.org/index.asp

Photo Credit: moodboard


Anna Luu

Anna Luu

Anna is certified with Water Art and is a seniors land fitness and water fitness instructor. Through her years of work experience and training, Anna has gained experience working with youth, adults and seniors in a variety of settings including in the home, at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Amica Retirement Residence, Vermont Square Long-Term Care, and Mackenzie Health Richmond Hill.