20 Great Ideas for Nursing Home Activities

Elderly woman having fun

When you are considering activities for nursing homes, different factors come into play. Not only is it important to consider any physical limitations, but cognitive abilities as well. Thankfully, several fun and engaging activities, such as games, gardening, and ice cream socials, are perfect for nursing home residents.

Activities for Nursing Home Residents

The biggest challenge for any recreational therapist lies in matching the right activity to each resident's individual physical and cognitive capabilities. Recreational therapists must also work closely with their nursing staff to choose an activity that will be most beneficial for the needs of each individual resident. Activities can be done individually or in groups if a particular activity is suitable for a number of residents. The following lists include a wide range of activities that fall under three basic categories, and there may be some crossover between categories so that a particular activity might fulfill more than one need or care goal.

Social Activities for Nursing Home Residents

Resident playing cards

These activities are designed keep residents engaged and entertained, but many offer physical and mental benefits as well.

Birthday Parties

There are many opportunities for activities here. Some residents might like to take part in decorating a room for a fellow resident's party. Others might like to help bake and decorate a cake. The party could be set up as a private event for the resident and his or her family, or it might include fellow residents according to the birthday honoree's preferences.

Ice Cream Social

This is always a hit with residents. You'll need chocolate and vanilla ice cream, as well as favorite toppings like hot fudge, strawberry sauce and whipped cream, and maybe a few extras like sprinkles, crushed Oreos, peanuts and cherries. Residents can choose their favorites to make a delicious sundae.

Tailgate Parties

Weather permitting, cordon off a section of the parking lot and recruit staff or volunteers to park their cars together and set up a cooking area to grill brats, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Coordinate with the kitchen staff to provide some side courses like potato salad, baked beans, and coleslaw. Set up tables where residents can eat, and bring everyone back inside to the day room to watch the game on TV.

"Folks have gathered some stories throughout the years and how great would it be to share them?" - Reader comment from Mars Hill Retirement Community

Story Time

This encompasses different things. Of course, young people can read to residents of nursing homes. However, an interesting alternative would be for the seniors to tell their stories to the youngsters. Many children are fascinated by the history and are amazed that there was life before Gameboys and mp3 players. Therefore, stories about life after a war, watching a television for the first time, and advances in technology and so on are eagerly received by children. Every person has a different story to share, and these precious personal histories deserve retelling.

Musical Events

Consider group sing-alongs with songs from various decades. Ask residents about their favorite songs and include them. Invite choir groups or musicians for recitals. Take residents on a field trip to a concert. Also, consider gathering residents in the day room to watch concert DVDs and popular musicals.

Board Games and Cards

Residents can be grouped according to their cognitive abilities to play games at various levels, from Candyland to Yahtzee to poker and more. Bingo is immensely popular with residents, and they can play for small treats and prizes.

"You can also try some innovation in your nursing home, using memory games on tablet(s) adapted to seniors with cognitive disorders." -- Reader comment from Justine Sauquet

Food-Centered Activities

Consider frosting cookies or baking brownies to be served as that day's desert. Baking bread is another activity that also doubles as a physical activity since it requires some hand dexterity. Making popcorn, coloring Easter eggs, and making fresh garden salads can all provide opportunities for residents to socialize as they prepare the food.

Holiday Programs

Some holiday ideas include holding a Labor day picnic or early Thanksgiving celebration and inviting residents' families, offering Halloween trick-or-treating so children from the surrounding community can go from room to room gathering treats, and holding a Christmas decorating party to trim the tree. Other ideas include holding an Easter egg hunt for the residents' grandchildren, or having a 4th of July celebration that might even include watching the local fireworks display. You might even consider holding a New Year's Eve celebration, although many facilities have their party in the afternoon or early evening rather than keep residents up until midnight.

Physical Activities

Resident holding a therapy pet

These activities are designed to promote physical and mental health.


This might include gentle calisthenics that are adapted to the residents' physical capabilities. Bouncing, tossing and kicking beach balls also provide physical activity and mental stimulation. Some facilities are even using the Wii gaming system to encourage residents to be more active. For example, wheelchair-bound residents might still be capable of using their arms to simulate movements like rolling a bowling ball or swinging a baseball bat.

Stretching and Resistance Training

These activities often include having residents use large elastic bands to help them stretch, tone and strengthen their arms and legs. This might make a nice morning activity to help invigorate the residents.

Sensory Stimulation

These activities are more suitable for bed-bound residents with diminished cognitive skills, and might include aromatherapy, audio stimulation such as listening to nature sounds CDs, or tactile therapies that involve having a resident use his or her fingers to feel textures ranging from soft to rough.

"What to do with the people who do not want to do anything (they are angry/agitative), who can not do anything (say, in Palliatve Care Unit), (or) who do not speak due to mental issues?" -- Reader question from Mary Mitchel

Pet Therapy

This activity offers a great opportunity for trained volunteers to bring certified therapy pets into the facility for the residents to interact with. Holding a guinea pig or petting a dog or cat can be very therapeutic for animal lovers, and may even draw some more reserved residents out of their shells.


This activity is seeing a resurgence in popularity. Some residents might enjoy growing herbs in a window garden or planting flowers in pots. Although many nursing home residents are no longer capable of fully tending a traditional vegetable or flower garden on alone, some facilities do maintain gardens where volunteers assist the residents by working alongside of them or working under their directions. At the minimum, this activity affords residents fresh air, sunshine and mental stimulation that is very much needed to keep boredom and depression at bay.


Resident quilting

Crafts provide entertainment for the residents as well as promote manual dexterity. They can also provide residents with a sense of accomplishment and purpose that can be very beneficial to their state of mind. Consider the following crafts, but don't hesitate to ask the residents themselves which kinds of crafts they are interested in.


This might include simple hand-sewing projects, but some facilities hold regular quilting sessions where residents work on homemade quilts that are later auctioned off to help provide money to fund other activities.

Rug Hooking

This is a great activity that is fairly simple to do. Residents can work on small individual projects, but you might also consider a group project where residents work together to finish a larger rug.

Finger Painting

This activity might be better suited to a resident with diminished cognitive skills, but it can also double as a tactile therapy.


This craft appeals to men and women alike. Watercolors are an especially easy medium to work with.

Knitting and Crocheting

Residents that have previously enjoyed these kinds of crafts and still have the dexterity to do them can happily spend many hours creating hats, scarves, lap blankets and many other useful items.

Leather Crafts

Male residents might prefer a craft like this to make wallets, coin purses and other items. This activity is usually better suited to individuals with higher physical and cognitive capabilities.

Holiday Ornaments

You'll find easy-to-make ornament kits at local craft stores as well as online craft stores like Oriental Trading.

Activities and Games for Elderly in Nursing Homes

Even though a recreational therapist has to tailor activities to each resident's capabilities, it's important to get the residents' input about what they'd like to do. It's no secret that people are more inclined to take part in activities that match their interests, and you never know where the next great activity idea will come from.

20 Great Ideas for Nursing Home Activities