home icon

Career Shift: Retirement Home Activity Director

This writer job-shadowed one to see what it takes

By Silvana Clark | March 10, 2014

After spending 21 years traveling the country as a self-employed professional speaker and author, I asked myself: Would a real job satisfy me?

There was only one way to find out. I did what many high schoolers do and arranged to job-shadow people in several fields, starting with a retirement home activity director.

By describing my experience, I’m hoping you’ll see whether you might want to consider switching fields in midlife to become an activity director — and whether you could.

Job Shadowing an Activity Director

For this job shadow, I followed around Julie Silva, Activity Director at Chateau at Valley Center Senior Living in Renton, Wash., to learn her daily routine.

I figured that being an activity director would be an excellent fit given my excess energy as well as my experience as a former camp counselor, back in the day when macramé was all the rage.

(MORE: My Brother, the Retirement Home Clown)

Little did I know that Julie offered her residents activities ranging from trips to the symphony to Casino nights to pumpkin carving.

A typical schedule at The Chateau:

9:00 am Water Exercise in Pool
10:00 am Balance Exercise Class
10:30 am Trip to Costco
1:00 pm Speed Scrabble
3:30 pm: Happy Hour With Hanky Panky Band
7:00 pm: Bingo

And that’s just for one day! Other activities include Bible study, Wii Bowling, movies, billiards, cooking demonstrations and wine tasting. Julie plans the activities and works with her staff to carry out the program.

My Job-Shadow Experience

On one day, I sat in on several exercise classes led by an enthusiastic physical therapist as she gave residents a workout with weights, balls and stretch bands. On another, I worked with Eric Peterson, a recently hired Activity Assistant there. He busily cut strips in the edges of fleece lap blankets, emblazoned with the Seattle Seahawks logo, so people riding the Chateau bus to various events could use the blankets if they got cold.

(MORE: The Key to a Successful Career Shift)

I enjoyed seeing the staff interact with residents. Anytime someone living at Chateau walked by the blanket-making area, one of the activity staffers called out something like: “Hey John! Come on over and help us make a Seahawks blanket!” Soon about a dozen residents sat at tables, happily tying knots in the fleece blankets while engaged in trash talk to anyone not rooting for the Seahawks.

Not for Perfectionists

It occurred to me that a perfectionist wouldn’t have enjoyed this type of work. Most of the residents were more interested in chatting with their friends than creating Pinterest-worthy blankets. Many knots were jumbled, so I unobtrusively made sure the blankets were held together properly. As with many things in life, the process is more important than the end product.

During the weekly 3:30 pm Happy Hour (two drink limit), when Julie danced with any resident looking for a partner, it was hard to tell who was having more fun — Julie or the residents.

As I watched her dance effortlessly, I panicked. What if she wanted me to dance with someone? I can’t dance, have no sense of rhythm and can’t even clap my hands to the correct beat in church. (Crisis averted when a resident asked me for some cookies and Julie maintained dance partner duties.)

In between dances, Julie mixed and served drinks. I watched in amazement as she knew which resident wanted rum and Coke and which wanted red wine. She also knew which one should only have a half-glass of wine, so he wouldn’t lose his balance after Happy Hour.

(MORE: 'You're Never Too Old' Career Shift Stories)

A Former Activity Director's Memories

Just as I was wondering if I was too old to be an activity director, the room took on new energy as a tall, stylish women glided into the room. Immediately people called out, “Hi, Sandy!” and “Hey Sandy, look at these blankets we’re making!” Sandy made the rounds, hugging and chatting with all the residents as if they were old friends. Turns out, they were. Sandy recently retired from The Chateau after five years as the activity director. Now she comes back twice a week to volunteer by leading a Bible study and helping at special events. Did I mention that Sandy is 70?

“I lucked out by having my last job be my best job,” she told me as we went to a side room to talk. “It’s great seeing people have fun and interacting one-on-one with them. That’s why I loved working here,” she said, stopping to wave to residents and staffers as they greeted her.

After my job shadow stint ended, I could see what Sandy meant. Being involved in the lives of retirement-home residents by providing them with creative and fun activities just might be a job I could enjoy. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most amazing, wonderful, terrific, fulfilling dream job that ever exists, I give activity director a score of 8.

Wonder if they need a macramé instructor?

What It Takes to Be an Activity Director

Qualifications to be an activity director or activity assistant vary from state to state; you may need to become state-licensed. Many retirement centers and assisted living facilities offer on-the-job training or classes at local schools.  (The average salary for an activity director at a nursing home, according to Salary.com: $37,060.)

Having been a speaker at many health care and activity director conferences, I know the main qualification to work in this field is having an outgoing personality. So often, I’d listen to directors tell me: “I can train people for CPR and to lead activities. I can’t train someone to smile when a resident enters the room. I can’t train someone to sincerely ask to see the pictures of the resident’s latest grandchild. I need employees who are friendly, upbeat and personable.”

So if you wouldn’t enjoy interacting with residents, don’t consider a career switch. But if having fun with groups of older people matches your personality, a job as activity director could be worth considering.

Sites With More Information

To learn more about becoming an activity director or activity assistant, check out the website of The National Association of Activity Professionals. This group is having its annual conference in St. Louis April 30-May 3, where you could make great contacts and learn from people already working in the field.

Another helpful site: Activity Director’s Office, which has useful links to ones for activity director community members, certification courses and more.

Most states have associations geared towards activity directors; a quick online search for the name of your state followed by “activity professionals” should get you local contact information.

You can search for retirement home activity director jobs online at sites such as Glassdoor.com and Careerbuilder.com.
 

Silvana Clark is a self-employed professional speaker and author of 12 books. She and her husband are brand ambassadors who get paid to travel across the country for various companies.

Newsletter
Next Avenue in your Inbox

Each week we'll send you stories, perspective and advice.