Who are Activity Co-ordinators? Why are they so important? How can they best be supported?

Time and time again, research has shown that a varied and focussed activity program improves the health and wellbeing of care home residents. And the people at the heart of those activity programmes are Activity Co-ordinators.

In recent years, there seems to be a trend for absorbing the role of leading activities into other roles within the care home. Carers for example, bear the brunt of this, meaning that as well as their usual checklist, they are often tasked with carrying out activities at the same time. Now, whilst I’m a believer in including as many activities throughout the day as possible (asking a resident about a photograph on their wall whilst carrying out personal care for example), this holistic approach can naturally only go so far. There are time constraints and pressures on carers already, and it is unlikely (in most cases) that they will be able to conduct any activity that cannot be carried out in conjunction with their care task or within a precious few minutes between these tasks.

So, what is the difference between Activity Co-ordinators and carers who carry out activities?

For Activity Co-ordinators, this is their only role. ACs are not expected to carry out personal care and it’s their job to plan the activity program, keep it person focussed and meaningful. They source any equipment or resources needed for this program and find outside entertainment like singers and dance leaders(!) It’s their job to lead activities, ensuring residents are engaged and have their physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs met. In other words, whilst carers look after the needs of the body, it is an Activity Co-ordinator’s job to look after the mind.

The benefits of a good activity program, which is well led, are far reaching. Care home residents who participate in activities are healthier, happier, live longer and are more satisfied with life. Carers who work with happier and healthier residents find their jobs are easier to carry out, more enjoyable and the work environment more pleasant. Managers with carers who carry out their role more effectively have staff that are content, have fewer sick days to contend with, and staff retention levels are higher. In the long term, activities are well worth the investment.

However despite activities being vitally important, Activity Co-ordinators are often not given much more than a tiny budget, or have to find ways of fund raising within the home to be able to afford resources. Most ACs I have met conduct a lot of their planning and evaluation of activities outside of work hours in order to ‘keep up’. As well as this unpaid work, a lot of Activity Co-ordinators put their own money into buying resources, because their home doesn’t have the budget to provide for their residents.

Along with these financial pressures, I have spoken to a lot of Activity Co-ordinators who say their main problem is the contention shown to them by care staff. Surprising huh? I mean, you’d think the two roles would work alongside each other well. Care staff are often resentful of ACs, thinking they have a cushty job of playing and chatting to residents. It might look like this from the outside, but as I’ve said above, it really isn’t! In fact, every carer I’ve met who transferred over to activities, eventually went back to being a carer or even left, as they found the Activities role too difficult.

The role of an Activity Co-ordinator is notoriously difficult to perform and difficult for management to support if there is no budget. With very little training available and the training that is offered being expensive, it is of little wonder that ACs are often just left to get on with things by themselves.

I can say from my own experience that I found it to be an isolating job and although I had the support from my manager, I found the emotional toll to be too high for me to manage effectively. Researching ideas, planning, sourcing, organising and then leading the activities is a lot for one person. Then if you throw in the emotional side - dealing with the negativity around you, trying to entice residents to join in activities and then feeling like a total failure when very people or no one at all wants to join in. Putting your heart and soul into a project only for it to be received with apathy is hard! Then, there are the things that residents tell you that they want to talk about but don’t want to burden their family with. I’ve listened to people tell me about physical and emotional abuse they received at the hands of spouses, co-workers and strangers. I’ve listened as people told me about losing children, losing their spouse or sibling. I’ve been yelled at, spat at, had drinks thrown at me and been called all names under the sun (my favourite to date is ‘heathen slut’). It’s not an easy role.

It’s why I’m starting these Activity Co-ordinator Network meetings. My idea is to give ACs a place where they can feel supported and understood by their peers. They can swap ideas, resources and be there for each other in a way that other teams are within a care home. It’s something I would have really benefitted from when I was an Activity Co-ordinator. If you’d like to join us, you can buy your ticket here.