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The image-enhancing role of an activities program.

How to put the activities program at the center of your marketing efforts

Nursing home administrators are constantly in search of ways to counter the bad press surrounding much of the long-term care industry these days. But positive publicity is within the reach of every facility, which needs to look no further than the activities program and the health care professionals who staff it.

Because they concentrate on what people can do rather than on what they cannot do, they provide vivid, provocative, and positive images of persons living rather than dying, participating rather than withdrawing, coping rather than giving up. The activities program and the activities staff offer images of promise and performance around which a positive, ongoing marketing program can be developed.

The Marketable Program

The yearly plan of activities events can serve as the basic structure for a marketing plan. Residents celebrating the recurring special days on the calendar can offer continuing opportunities for media coverage or community outreach.

These annual events include not only the traditional religious or patriotic holidays, each with its own special meaning and opportunity for publicity; but also those events with direct links to long-term care, such as National Nursing Home Week, Residents' Rights Week, National Volunteer Week, Grandparents' Day, and National Activity Professionals' Week. Calendars highlighting these special long-term care and other commemorations are readily available from several sources and are a staple in activities departments as a tool for events planning. Administrators can use them for scheduling media events and outreach activities designed to publicize the facility and its work.

Additionally, there are the special events the activities staff are always developing for the year, such as talent shows, musical productions, field trips, intergenerational functions, pet therapy sessions, transporting residents to vote, and so forth. Most of these may warrant coverage by the local media.

Administrators and activities staff must also be constantly on the alert for other, unplanned opportunities for publicity that crop up unexpectedly throughout the year: The eminent old soldier, artist, or diplomat who enters the facility as a resident; the last survivor of a World War I regiment who inherits the bottle of wine reserved by his comrades for the "last man", the publication of a book or poem written by a resident, etc.

Identifying the events which will serve as the basis for your marketing efforts is only the beginning, however. Someone on the staff of the facility must be assigned the responsibility for public relations, and this person must maintain constant contact with the activities department, if it is to be the center of the marketing program, as we have conceived it here. This liaison is necessary to keep the administration current, particularly on spontaneous, late-breaking events.

The public relations officer must also maintain an up-to-date list of print and electronic media contacts, who will receive press releases as warranted notifying them of planned events worthy of coverage. Contacts should be cultivated at all newspapers and radio and television stations in your market area. Press releases should be brief, factual, and precise as to the time, place, and purpose of the event.

Another way of generating publicity about events is to furnish scripts to radio and television stations for 15- and 30-second public service announcements about commemorations associated with special events at the facility. Letters may be written to the mayor of the community in which the facility is located requesting him or her to issue a proclamation in honor of National Nursing Homes Week, Residents' Rights Week, National Activity Professionals' Week, or one of the other special events. To aid in getting this done, draft texts of such proclamations should be provided.

Following these general rules should yield an ongoing sequence of positive news about your facility in general and your activities department in particular.

However, each component of an excellent activities program can, in itself, become the focus of a marketing strategy. Three components are especially useful in this regard: individualized programming, the spirit of the facility "community," and the qualifications of the activities staff.

Individualized Programming. Programming for each resident is the cornerstone of the Quality of Life section of the federal regulations governing operation of a long-term care facility. The stated intent of this, of course, is that the outcome for each person will be the attainment of the resident's highest practicable level of psychosocial functioning -- in short, the resident will be "the best he or she can be," emotionally, socially, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. The motivation for this kind of achievement must be instilled through individualized programming.

Through the processes of interview, observation, assessment, and motivation, activity staff members design and implement an activities program for each resident which draws on and combines each resident's past accomplishments, present possibilities, and future aspirations. Developing that program with input from other interdisciplinary team members assures that it will address and be compatible with the entire range of the resident's physical and other needs. A team approach such as this maximizes the opportunities for success.

The marketing possibilities of individualized programming are numerous. It is especially useful for illustrating the subtlety and complexity of the treatment provided in special care and subacute units. For instance, consumers may believe that those who reside in special care units are treated with a "sameness" because they all suffer from dementia. Publicity campaigns which focus on activity staff members working one-to-one within the unit can drive home the concept of individualized programming.

Subacute units are a relatively new concept to consumers. If subacute is perceived as a "less intense" form of care, that perception becomes a negative. But if the spotlight is placed on the individualized program developed by the activity staff with the patient, then the perception turns positive, because the public sees an image of a client potentially returning to normality.

Community Spirit. Though all departments of the facility use individualized approaches, the activities department also offers opportunities for the individual to develop relationships with others, to celebrate such common occurrences of life as birthdays and holidays, to join others in worship -- in short, to be a part of a community again. The spirit of community in any facility is generated by the group activities program and the yearly plan of events, reinforced by the endeavors of volunteers.

One of the goals of the group activities program is to meet the social needs of the residents. The program is designed in such a way as to allow each person to participate at his or her own level of skill, ability, and involvement. But it also gives each person the feeling of belonging and acceptance. This is hardly the stereotypical image of an ill and withdrawn person so commonly attributed to nursing homes; rather, it displays healthy, constructive possibilities.

This makes the yearly plan of group events -- based on holidays, seasons, and annual celebrations -- a gold mine for a marketing plan. It allows the activity staff members and public relations personnel to orchestrate favorable publicity throughout the calendar year. Because the plan is perennial, it keeps the facility in a continually positive light. This can cancel out periodic intrusions of negative publicity about long-term care failures. Also, it underscores again the valuable truth that human beings can and do behave normally in a community, despite being institutionalized and despite their unavoidably difficult and debilitating circumstances.

Volunteers who assist with the activities program in a variety of ways can provide positive images of performance. They demonstrate the incalculable worth of a commitment to others. Publicizing their efforts gives the volunteers well-deserved acclaim. It also has the benefit of confirming the openness of the facility and the willingness of the administration to be scrutinized by the community.

Staff Qualifications. The final component of the activities program which can help in marketing the facility is the excellence of the activity professionals who staff it. Consumers may harbor a mistaken impression that activities programming involves little more than "fun and games," and that no special requirements exist for the education and training of activity personnel. They may not be aware of the fact that the activities program is a required element of long-term care, is considered essential to the residents' quality of life, and by law must be provided by a qualified professional.

Publicity which portrays activity professionals in this light reinforces the idea of activities programming as organized, sophisticated, methodical, and carefully tailored to individual needs; it also demonstrates that a highly competent professional is necessary to deliver this kind of programming. This in turn shows consumers that the nursing home is seriously in the business of maintaining, extending, and enriching the lives of its residents, not simply providing them a place in which to wane and die.

Accordingly, a marketing emphasis should be placed on the federal standards concerning who is qualified to direct an activities program. Under OBRA, a person is qualified to direct an activities program if he or she is an activities professional or therapeutic recreation specialist who is licensed, registered, or eligible for certification by a recognized accrediting body; or has two years' experience in a social or recreational program within the last five years, one year of which was full-time in a resident activities program in a health care setting; or is a qualified occupational therapist or occupational therapy assistant; or has completed a state-approved training course for this.

The federal standards accept a variety of backgrounds and education, but the point to be made with consumers is that the facility's activity personnel are qualified by training, education, and experience to provide quality activities programming in a long-term care setting.

The certification process developed by the National Certification Council for Activity Professionals (NCCAP) is especially relevant because it requires specific experience in long-term care. If your activities director is NCCAP-certified, this will be a plus in marketing the activities program. NCCAP provides certification tracks for activity directors, activity assistants, and consultants.

A state-approved training course provides students with education specific to the job of directing an activities program. The National Association of Activity Professionals and NCCAP have developed a 90-hour Basic Education Course curriculum for activity professionals which has been accepted by several states as the approved training course. If a facility's activity director is a graduate of such a course, this too can be publicized as a feature of the overall excellence of the activities staff.

To this end, administrators would be well-advised to encourage activity staff members to become NCCAP-certified and to join NAAP if they have not already done so.


In summary, a good activities program empowers the individual who feels diminished by chronic disease, pain, accident, or illness to regain self-confidence and self-esteem. It provides opportunities to succeed by adaptation, to be involved and accepted, to become interested again in once-favored pursuits. The activities program can also empower a person to again be a part of a community by sharing, befriending, caring about others, and feeling needed. It is directed and developed by a qualified professional who is dedicated, experienced, and educated.

All these components can be put to use in a marketing program for your facility, one that offers much-needed images of promise and performance for the residents the facility serves.

Nancy DeBolt is L.I.F.E. Resources Consultant at the Goshen Care Center, Torrington, WY, and serves as President of the National Association of Activity Professionals, a 3,000-member professional development organization representing acitivity professionals working in nursing homes, retirement living communities, adult day care facilities and senior centers throughout the United States, Canada and Bermuda.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Medquest Communications, LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:DeBolt, Nancy
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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