orange iconOperational Response Level: Restricted ›

Alumni Engagement

Alumni bring life to retirement facilities as therapeutic recreation facilitators

December 13, 2013

There was a time when Audrey Sawatzky thought retirement homes were just places the elderly went to live out the end of their lives. Now she knows differently – and she’s out to teach everyone the truth.

“[We are all] going to age,” says Sawatzky (shown above, at right), a graduate of Red River College’s Recreation Facilitator for Older Adults program.

“One day you will be 65 and there will be a 20-something looking at you thinking, ‘You’re nothing but an old person.’ But you won’t think that. You’ll think: ‘Look at the life I’ve lived. I have so much more to give, I just need an outlet.’ And recreation coordinators can supply that outlet.”

Sawatzky works as the recreation coordinator at Riverwood Square, a retirement facility for residents 55 and older that offers independent living options for active seniors, as well as supportive housing for those who require additional attention.

She says facilities such as Riverwood — often mistakenly regarded as “old folks’ homes” — actually heighten residents’ physical and mental well-being, thanks in large part to recreational programming.

“The point of recreation is basically to bring life to the building,” she says. “Just because you’re older… doesn’t mean you’re not alive any more.”

As a recreation coordinator, Sawatzky helps plan and coordinate activities for the more than 180 residents, ensuring events are both holistic and relevant. Approximately 15 programs, ranging from morning exercises and team sports to trivia games and arts and crafts, are offered multiple times per week.

Sawatzky enjoys her job; every day she comes home feeling not only like she’s made a difference, but also that she’s learned something new.

“The most rewarding part is knowing that in [the residents’] later years I’m a new friend and a fresh perspective. And also what’s so rewarding is the things I’ve learned from them. Every day I learn something so new and interesting. There’s a fountain of knowledge that our elder population has – somehow I think we’ve missed the gap, and I’m learning so much.”

Until a few years ago Sawatzky hadn’t even heard of a recreation coordinator; a chance encounter with someone who worked in the field got her thinking about the work.

“It just struck a note. I had been searching for something,” says Sawatzky, who had previously completed Bachelors of Arts degrees at both Providence College and Canadian Mennonite University while working part-time as a health care aide. “I’m very organized and I love to plan things. I was thinking of event planning but I knew that was selfish gain for those involved. It’s fun to have a party, but it wasn’t contributing to society the way I wanted. I wanted to give back to make people’s lives enriched.”

Sawatzky enrolled in RRC’s Recreation Facilitator program (now called Therapeutic Recreation Facilitator for Older Adults), graduating in 2013.

She excelled in the program thanks in part, she says, to the instructors, who had plenty of real-world experience.

“The courses you could tell were specifically designed for exactly our jobs,” she adds. “Every course I took, I have used information in my job. I don’t think a minute there was not valuable.”

The highlight for Sawatzky, however, was the practicum.

“Practicum puts what we learned in school, what we learned on paper, into practice. We got to use our resources. And it gave us a chance to try out programs we had come up with and see how residents would react to them.”

While volunteering at Riverwood Square, Sawatzky met director of recreation programming Allison Woodward, another graduate of the RRC program.

Woodward had been hired at Riverwood following her 2011 graduation. She was the first formally trained recreation facilitator to be hired at the facility, and the professionalism she provided greatly increased residents’ participation in recreational programs. In fact, the recreation programming has since become so popular a second position was created – and that’s how Sawatzky got her job.

“[Riverwood Square has] seen the benefits of the recreation programs in maintaining some of the residents’ quality of life,” Woodward says. “We’ve definitely seen that by having programs available, by having someone there to facilitate them and to get residents out of their rooms, they can be healthy, not just socially but physically. It maintains their health, it maintains their quality of life.”

Recreation is a fairly new area and convincing some of its merits can be difficult. But Woodward said the professionalism of RRC’s program is helping to authenticate the field.

“It’s creating more awareness of these programs, and letting people know that there are professionals out there; there is training behind it and it is a quality position,” Woodward says.

And given the aging baby boomer population, the demand for trained professionals won’t be waning anytime soon.

“The population is aging extremely rapidly,” Sawatzky says. “There is a really strong need for well-educated people who are knowledgeable about the aging process and different methods to keep our elder population engaged and socialized.”

Profile by Stacy Cardigan Smith (Creative Communications, 2006)