The Recreational Therapy Program at Old Dominion University (ODU) goes beyond textbooks and classrooms, making a tangible impact through the Senior Wellness Program. Spearheaded by Shelly Beaver, a Senior Lecturer in the program, this initiative brings together students and senior residents, creating a unique space for shared experiences, growth, and connection.

Shelly Beaver's journey with the Senior Wellness Program began at Penn State, where she initiated a similar program that continues to thrive. Upon joining ODU, Shelly took the program to Maimonides Health Center (MHC), formerly Beth Sholom Village, in Virginia Beach, leveraging an alumni connection. Junior and senior students play a pivotal role, constructing and executing the program during the Fall semester.

Adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program embraced a virtual format, focusing on cognitive and social activities to maintain connections. With the resumption of in-person activities, the program found a new home at Harbor's Edge, a senior living community in Norfolk. This move not only doubled its reach to 12 visits per semester but also opened doors for students to explore the diverse facets of recreational therapy.

Fraingeli Castro-Gonzalez, currently serving as the activities coordinator on the memory support unit at Harbor’s Edge, began her career early as Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at the age of 16. She started her collegiate career with an interest in a nursing program; however, her desire for a less clinical approach led her to recreational therapy. She took Professor Beaver’s class at Harbor’s Edge in the fall of 2021, and was later offered an internship. Graduating from ODU in December 2022, Fraingeli began working full time at Harbor’s Edge during the last two weeks of her internship.

As an alumna of ODU, Fraingeli finds it fascinating to now lead the program after having been a student in the same class. Witnessing students utilize feedback and improve throughout the semester brings her immense pride. While watching a few of the residents sing along to music during an activity led by students, Fraingeli said with a smile,  "Reminiscing is important for the residents in this program. It’s beautiful when they remember things from their past. Music helps a lot."

To ensure a seamless experience, students prepare the activity for the day, often having a backup plan in case the session needs adjustment based on residents' energy levels. The students work one on one with a resident who is assigned to them at the beginning of the class. 

Jalik Godbold was able to quickly build a relationship with his resident. "Building rapport with my resident was easy because she was a high energy people person. She was a flight attendant for 19 years and she had excellent people skills. I also believe I have excellent people skills so once we had started talking, it was like we were old friends catching up." While some of the students go into this class knowing they want to work with the elderly population, many of them go into it thinking they want to work with children or another population, then they end up changing their minds because they love the class so much. However, while Jalik has enjoyed the class, he has decided he wants to go into behavioral health. "Being active duty military and seeing all the mental health issues that people face today has inspired me to help because I have been there."

Half the class facilitates activities on the memory support unit, while the other half of the class lead activities on the assisted living unit. During “chair exercise bingo,” Kayln Stokes pulled a card for an exercise called “shoulder flex.” As she demonstrated, she said “It’s kind of like we’re doing the wave,” eliciting laughter and enthusiasm from the residents and other students.  Kalyn's passion for working with older adults reminds her of spending time with her grandparents. “It’s comforting.” She also loves recreational therapy because of the options in the field. "It's a flexible career field that allows you to move around to different areas."

Kristen "Kris" Batts, a student working with Kayln on the activity, agreed and added, "Recreational Therapy is an underrepresented major that has a big, direct impact on people."

Kris confessed that she initially entered the program with an interest in working with children, but her experience in this class shifted her focus, igniting a passion for working with the elderly population. Kris's encounter with a retired professor among the residents opened her eyes to the wealth of knowledge she could gain in nursing homes.

Shelby Crockett, a 2018 alumna of ODU, previously worked with both elderly individuals and children on the autism spectrum. She initially pursued an interdisciplinary major with a focus on special education; however, the Senior Wellness Program changed her mind, leading her to switch to a major in recreational therapy. After completing the class in Fall 2017, Shelby undertook her internship at Beth Sholom and was subsequently hired full-time at MHC where she currently serves as the lead recreational therapist. When describing her job, she dispels misconceptions, “Yeah, we do get to have fun all day! But it’s fun with a therapeutic benefit behind it.” Shelby wishes more people knew about the positive impact of recreational therapy, noting that many individuals stumble into the field but end up loving it.

The Senior Wellness Program is not just a class; it's a dynamic and evolving initiative that adapts to the changing landscape in the field of recreational therapy. Whether it's fostering connections between students and seniors or opening doors to diverse career paths within recreational therapy, this program is an example of innovation and compassion.