Jackie Byington, CTRS, Life Enrichment Director
Cornerstone Assisted Living and Memory Care. Plymouth MN
It’s All Just Fun and Games. Really!
As we come up to this year’s National Activity Professionals Day on January 26th, we are enjoying shining our light on this most appreciated work.
I was directed to Jackie Byington as one of the outstanding practitioners of this profession. Jackie summed it up by saying “We’re the Quality-of-Life people!”. Fun activities and good food. Sounds simple, right? Well, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
First a solid foundation of clinical knowledge is required for effective therapy, then a strong set of organizational skills is critical. Good relationship building helps develop a lasting list of contacts to call on for planning effective and reliable schedules. It also opens doors to opportunities not everyone achieves. And don’t forget, bus driving is an advantage too. Finally, knowing how to always stay under budget is a very attractive skill to management.
Inspired Activities Planning Is Art In Itself
Creativity is the icing on that cake. Having a wide-open mindset to see fun from every perspective is the magic that keeps things fresh.
Jackie explained excitedly, “My creative brain is my realm. Planning fun, big and small, high caliber events and activities is my thing!” She went on to say, “I love the challenge to make things fun and innovative.” Her exuberance is even more infectious knowing she is still at it after more than 35 years. Though she clearly doesn’t regard it as work. It fulfills her.
The Path to Campus Recreational Therapy Directorship
Entering college at UW LaCrosse, it was Jackie’s unbridled interest in all the arts that led a classmate to suggest therapeutic recreation for her interest and abilities. And with that it was game on. The only big choice then was with whom she would apply her skills.
The second half of her 16-week clinical internship was with seniors and that did it. “Seniors are kind, gracious, loving, and so very appreciative” Jackie sighed. It also resonated with her love of her Grandpa Archie whom she cared for as he lived out his dementia through the end of her high school years in Richfield.
From LaCrosse it was straight into the field as an activities assistant followed by activities directorships at a few different sites for ten years. Then she moved into the activities directorship for the entire Covenant Village campus (200 beds), which she held for the next 20 years.
In 2015 Jackie moved to an adult day activity setting at Glen Hopkins where she built attendance from six participants to 24 and held it there until the pandemic forced the unfortunate shuttering of such programming. At that crossroad though she quickly turned to her current position as Life Enrichment Director at Cornerstone.
Giving Back, To The Future
Throughout Jackie’s tenure at Covenant she was a faithful mentor to those coming up behind her. In her 20 years she oversaw the internships(16 weeks) of 14 therapeutic recreation students, mostly from UW LaCrosse. It not only helped the students and their program but with her infectious spirit it allowed the students to be a real help to her and a real value to their residents.
Many of those students have gone on to lasting careers in the profession. Some have been, and continue to be, at senior living communities and the Alzheimer’s Association here in the Twin Cities.
These ARE Your Grandma’s Activities
The trick to fun and innovative activities is open ears and an open mind. Jackie explained how residents always love to “go out”. And that goes two ways. They go out to nature centers, restaurants, arts venues, cultural sites, museums, shopping centers, schools etc. And when they can’t go out Jackie turns it right around and has all those places come to them. Same destinations, double the event opportunities.
It generates quite a list from the: Arboretum, restaurants, Norway House, Lowry Nature Center, fishing expeditions, movie theaters, zoo visits, winter outings, to theater, music events, plays, art shows, craft festivals, holiday celebrations-costume contests, Minnesota State Fair-IN HOUSE(think of all those food aromas in your home!), and high caliber music performances. Again, both in the community and at home. Finally, local Veteran’s Day celebrations, commemorations, color guard, and recognitions.
The variety comes a little easier for Jackie as she is so keenly attuned to asking for, and listening to, what the residents want. Whatever it is, she delivers. She also loops residents and family members and their interests and talents in as well. It lightens her load a bit and adds more therapeutic layers i.e. Learn To Speak German, resident quartet, etc.
Then there is the whole realm of animals; therapy dogs, donkeys-(really?!), etc. And of course, kids and grandkids.
Simply put, Jackie is not talking about retiring anytime soon! She ended with a wry smile saying “And remember, if it all looked like it ran smooth and easy, it was well planned!”.