‘If You Build It, They Will Come’ Not True of Assisted Living Activities

Assisted living providers know that engaging residents in recreational activities is not straightforward—and the research supports that.

A researcher out of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Evan Plys, has reviewed the scientific literature regarding recreational activity behaviors in assisted living, analyzing 70 total studies. The article with his findings, “Recreational Activity in Assisted Living Communities: A Critical Review and Theoretical Model,” recently was published in The Gerontologist.

The article provides an overview of what recreational activities look like in assisted living, including a table listing the activities that were mentioned in the articles he reviewed.


Family visits and walking were the two most commonly cited activities, at 26 and 25 mentions each. Physical exercise, bingo, arts and crafts, and watching TV were commonly mentioned as well.

Only two studies mentioned “reminiscing” as an activity. Poker, darts and men’s group all were only mentioned one time.

Recreational activity participation is related to multiple variables, the research shows, driving the development of Plys’ new theoretical model for predicting, measuring and identifying consequences of recreation activities in AL. It’s a model that begins with the relocation process to assisted living, and then takes into account a variety of individual, environmental and other factors that influence participation and outcomes.


This model reflects the development in researchers’ understanding of recreational activities in assisted living, he noted, referring to a well-known quote from the movie Field of Dreams.

“This framework represents a shift in the literature from an ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality of RA, which often tested demographics, health and availability of activities as the sole predictors of participation, to a more flexible model that captures the intricacies of human choice and behavior,” he wrote.

Some studies have found positive consequences of recreational activities in assisted living, mostly related to social climate and residents’ psychosocial wellbeing. However, the research in this area is “small and inconsistent” and does not offer strong empirical support for policymakers and researchers who cite benefits of recreational activity in assisted living, Plys wrote.

Going forward, there are numerous avenues for researchers still to explore, he concluded. This includes work to establish more empirically supported ways of planning activities based on resident preferences, interests and biopsychosocial needs, and assessing differences in participation, engagement, personal meaning and activity demands in self-initiated and programmed activities.

Written by Tim Mullaney

Companies featured in this article: