Social stimulation, activities lift spirits of elderly patients, improve their health


As director of the respiratory unit at Cedar Lane Nursing Home in Waterbury, Conn., Dr. Richard Silverman had an insider's view of life in a long-term care facility, and he was concerned about what he saw.

Though the facility had a dedicated and competent staff that offered skilled care and a regular schedule of recreational activities, there was a numbing sameness to the daily routine. With few visitors, little social stimulation and not much to look forward to, patients quickly became isolated, withdrawn and depressed.

"It became apparent to me that most of the residents had little contact with anyone outside of the facility and did the same things day in and day out," says Silverman, a Southbury pulmonologist. "And whenever there were budget cuts, recreation was the first thing affected."

Silverman noticed that the smallest changes helped brighten his patient's moods. To raise spirits, he brought in recordings of residents' favorite music, took groups to the movies and offered rewards for meeting goals. A patient who was capable of walking, but refused to, got back on her feet when Silverman promised to take her out to dinner. Silverman even convinced professional wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts to visit the facility.

"One of the seniors was a big professional-wrestling fan," says Silverman. "When I saw a flier for a wrestling event at a local high school, I called the promoter. He not only set up the visit, he gave us tickets to the event, and we went."

The residents talked about the event for months. And staffers began to notice an unexpected benefit that went beyond social stimulation. Residents were complaining less about chronic aches and pains and were taking fewer trips to the hospital.

"Patients were less depressed, in less pain and using less medication," says Silverman. "I realized that if something this simple was working so well here, there were others outside of my small group of patients who could benefit from the same type of contact."

Research showed he was right. According to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control, more than 1.5 million Americans 65 and older live in nursing homes. About half are 85 or older.

Some individuals enter nursing homes for short-term rehabilitation services after an illness or operation; others need 24-hour-a-day care when chronic conditions such as vision loss, mobility limitations or dementia make it impossible to live independently.

"Every nursing home has residents that get only very occasional visitors or no visitors at all," says Judy Digiovanna, registered nurse and social services coordinator at Cheshire House, a long-term care facility in Waterbury.

"It's heartbreaking," she says. "Staff can meet physical needs, but they can't always meet the social and emotional needs. People have no idea what long-lasting impact a simple visit means to these folks."

Silverman started writing letters and making calls to solicit volunteers and donations. Response was so positive that a year ago he founded the Home-to-Home Foundation (, a nonprofit agency created to enhance life for residents in long-term care facilities. Today, volunteers from the business community, civic groups and schools regularly visit a dozen nursing homes in the Waterbury area, participating in such programs as gardening, reading groups, art and computer classes, pet visits, concerts and holiday activities -- as well as Silverman's trademark offbeat activities.

The foundation has sponsored contests to see who can grow the biggest or the ugliest vegetables, organized a bowl-a-thon and is planning a miniature golf tournament, complete with portable miniature golf course that can be moved from nursing home to nursing home and team jerseys.

"People who reside in nursing homes aren't just patients; they're people who have worked hard, raised families and done so much over their lifetimes," says Silverman. "Our goal is to make communities aware of these folks and to provide them with the attention, care and fun they deserve."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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