How to Create the Ideal Environment for Group Activities for Seniors

As a music therapist, I facilitate group sessions in a variety of settings. Every nursing home or assisted living facility or senior apartment building I go to has a different place for activity programming, and some are definitely better than others. Of course, some of the advantage or disadvantage comes from the construction of the building itself, and unless you have a hand in planning for renovations, you don’t have control over that. What you DO control, though, can make a HUGE difference in the success of a group activity experience.

No matter what activity or experience you are leading, you want to make sure that everyone can SEE and HEAR what is going on so that they can be ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS. Here’s how to do it:

Choose a space big enough for the group – but not too big. You’ll want to have room for everyone to get in and out of the room and maneuver around the space, but if you’re in a space that is too big for your group, it is easy for other distractions to sneak into the room and interfere with the activity.

Consider the needs of the participants, especially when deciding how big the group can be. If you have folks who will need a lot of direct attention and cueing, for example, you’ll need to keep the group small. People with hearing impairments may need to be in a smaller space. People with vision impairments might feel more comfortable in a smaller group. On the other hand, you might get more social or musical interaction in a larger group of people with higher cognitive functioning.

Arrange the participants in a circle or semi-circle. Make sure everybody can see everybody else to encourage interaction. For larger groups, arrange people in concentric circles so that everyone is still facing towards the middle.

Avoid having people on the edges of the group, whether they are staff members or residents who are less responsive than others. Everyone should be a part of the group, even if they can only participate by being present.

Only use tables if necessary for your activity. They form a barrier between group members, and they make interacting and conversing more difficult. 

Keep the noise level down. Shut the doors to the hallway if you have them. Turn off the TVs and radios. Work with housekeeping staff to make sure they won’t need to be in the room during your activity.

Minimize people coming and going from the group. Every time someone enters or exits, it creates a distraction, and it takes time to get the group focused again on the activity. Ask nursing staff to avoid interrupting the session to pass meds or take residents to the shower unless absolutely necessary. Of course, residents sometimes need to leave for one reason or another, and people with dementia might feel the need to wander. That leads to the last point:

Be flexible and embrace the distractions. Even when you do everything you possibly can, you won’t really be able to create the perfect environment for a group activity. There will always be distractions and interruptions. You just need to find a way to integrate these things as part of your activity. As a music therapist, I’m inclined to think about situations in a musical way, so a video that I saw recently came to mind. Check out how this guy integrated an interruption into his musical performance.

With these tips in mind, I hope you’ll be able to create the environment that will help your residents enjoy and succeed in the group activities you facilitate.

Of course, I don’t know everything, and I’d love to hear what ideas YOU would suggest for creating the best environment for group activities. Please leave your ideas in the comments section!

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