At the Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation (CNR) in Brooklyn, New York, Recreation Director Brenda Torres, has established computer stations with Internet connection in all the “neighborhoods,” as they call their units, and has several groups currently being run by the residents themselves. I believe both of these steps are essential for the emotional health of residents, but as they are all too rare in nursing homes, I asked Brenda if she’d share with us how she managed these accomplishments. She graciously agreed, and what follows is my interview with one of the most talented, dynamic, and creative people in the field. You can visit her at technohealer.com for more information about her work.
How long have you been a recreation therapist and why did you choose to work in nursing homes? I’ve been in Recreation over 19 years. I was a psych major and had been gifted in the arts and when I started working in adult day care, I was able to use my art and my psych background, as well as an exercise component. I work with both young and old folks through the intergenerational program at CNR. I don’t focus on age, I focus on abilities.
You’re a big advocate of the use of technology with the residents. What do you see as the benefits and how did you go about getting the administrative support and financial backing for this? Walking through the nursing home halls, I noticed there were a lot of bed-bound residents, and I wished there was a way to get the activities to the residents because they couldn’t get out to them. I had a vision of having a mobile computer unit, so I started Googling it. At the time, they only had a unit that was used for hospital paperwork, so I started to research adaptive devices. At about this time, you and I started talking about a particular young resident and how he would benefit from Internet access. Using your testimony about the need, and other paperwork such as photos of the computer unit and information about the cost, I put out a request for funding. Two and a half years later, the funding came through the CNR community advisory board, which had collected the money through community fundraisers. Now CNR has a mobile unit, which we call R2D2, that brings games and activities as well as Internet access to bed-bound residents, in addition to multiple computer stations throughout the nursing home.
Some of your residents run their own groups. Do you think this has been beneficial for the residents and group leaders? Currently I have a poetry group, a bible group, a collage art group, and a crochet group run by the residents. The President of the Resident Council is in charge of games. Another resident is in charge of R2D2’s “wife” Techno, whom we were able to purchase through additional funding, and other residents come to her to gain use of it. One of the main benefits of having the residents run their own groups is empowerment. It gives them self-worth, a sense of being part of a community, and it gives them purpose. Being empowered prolongs their life and makes them feel needed. Traditionally in a nursing home, people tend to feel like they don’t have a life, that they’re just there until the end, but it’s not true. These are individuals who are survivors, they planted the soil for the new leaders. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have Obama. They are the blueprints to our society.
How would you suggest a resident who wanted to start a group within their facility go about doing this? [I thought the residents were coming to Brenda to ask if they could run a group, but I learned it was Brenda who was approaching and encouraging the residents.] Before you start a group, look at the needs and skills of the residents and assess the skills of the potential leader. The challenge is how to address a possible leader. I share with them the notion that leisure should not be work, it should be a fulfillment of purpose. It can take time to nurture a potential leader. Display their gifts, show them they still have the ability, invite them to teach others. Help them to visually see the group. We have to take away the barriers, using visual guided imagery. It can be a process taking up to a year, highlighting abilities, and providing reassurance.
What kind of practical support do you offer them in terms of set-up, supplies, etc? We do help with supplies and bringing the residents to the group. A staff member stays with the group as needed, puts up fliers for recruitment, reminders of the group, etc. It can start out at 100% support and eventually over time it moves to 30% support.
Are there any changes you would like to see in long term care in general, from your perspective as a recreation therapist? Yes, many. There has to be change in all long term, because life is changing. The changes have to match our lives, like technology and aging baby boomers. We have to make society paint a picture of long term care in the future, because then it will be more acceptable to be in a nursing home and they will be ready for people like you and me. All the work I am doing is part of building my own home for the future.