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Veterans Health Administration


Recreational Therapy: Restoring Function, Recreating Lives

Group of Veterans around table

Texas Flyfishers of Houston member Michael J. Arnold (left) gives tips on tying a fly to Veterans (from right) Hector Bernavidez, Ronald Holt, Larry D. Holt, and Basil Moorehead. Photo: Bobbi Gruner

Karl Tanner, VARHS Recreation Assistant, talks about the VA Roseburg program:

Man holding up a fish

“Recreation therapy at the VA Roseburg Hospital hosts several activities each day, and from time to time there are special events that involve all Roseburg staff. We provide a balanced variety of opportunities and strength-based programming for our residents. Our department strives to be creative, dynamic and resourceful so that our residents receive quality services and experience life to its fullest.

Our program consists of two Certified Recreation Therapists, Bill Bailey and Marilyn Warren, and I am the Therapy Assistant. Our days are filled with interventions to improve the function of individuals with illnesses or disabling conditions. We utilize various activities as a form of active treatment to promote the independent physical, cognitive, emotional, and social functioning of persons experiencing disability as a result of trauma or disease. By enhancing current skills and facilitating the establishment of new skills for daily living, we are able to improve the quality of life for our patients.

The days are full for recreation therapy staff and include patient activities such as daily walks, morning exercise, coffee and conversation, brain fitness, greenhouse gardening, volunteer visits, luncheons, bingo, card games, live music, swimming, golf and various other activities and skill building programs. We are always excited for the advent of summer season for fishing, picnics, bike riding, hikes and patient outings to view the beautiful Land of the Umpqua.

Each activity that we develop is geared for specific populations or individuals and we are very proud to serve our Honored Veteran population which includes individuals who have served from WWII up to today. It is exciting to help people get active again by using sports, games, arts, crafts and music to help them build confidence and get back into life.”

Thousands of Veterans receive “recreational therapy” from VA. For America’s Veterans, therapeutic recreation promotes health and wellness along with reducing or eliminating activity limitations and restrictions caused by an illness or disabling condition.

The role of a recreation therapist in the Veterans Health Administration is to work in conjunction with interdisciplinary team members, Veterans, families and friends to assist in a continuum of care from admission to discharge.

The benefits of recreation therapy for Veterans include improving physical well being such as weight management and controlling diabetes and hypertension. The therapy can also improve social functioning and help Veterans develop new leisure skills. It can enhance creative expression and break down barriers for cultural expression.

Therapeutic recreation uses treatment, education and recreation services to help people with illnesses, disabilities and other conditions to develop and use their leisure in ways that enhance their health, functional abilities, independence and quality of life.

— The American Therapeutic Recreation Association

A final transition to home and to the community is a goal for many Veterans and recreation therapy helps create the catalyst for successful community re-entry.

July 10-16 is National Therapeutic Recreation Week dedicated to enhancing public awareness of therapeutic recreation programs and services and to expanding recreation and leisure opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Larry Long, Director, VHA Recreation Therapy Program, describes the role of the recreation therapy: “Recreation therapists provide treatment services and recreation activities to Veterans with disabilities, illnesses or other disabling conditions. They treat and maintain the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the patient using a variety of techniques, including arts and crafts, sports, games, dance, music and community integration activities.

“Recreation therapists assist in maintaining the health of Veterans receiving care at VA facilities for a variety of conditions, including those who are geriatric, chemically dependent, spinal cord injured, visually impaired and others. They also assist Veterans with disabilities to integrate into the community by helping them use community resources and recreational activities.”

Therapeutic recreation is based upon a holistic framework that focuses on all aspects of improving an individual’s health and functioning. By providing structured and unstructured therapy-driven services, providers use therapeutic recreation for improving physical abilities, building confidence and promoting greater self-reliance.

Among the many helpful programs used in recreation therapy over the past several years was a fly tying class.

Recreation therapists at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) teamed up with the Texas Flyfishers of Houston to give injured Veterans a crack at fly fishing and add a bit of fun to the rehabilitation process. In preparation for a community reintegration fishing trip, Dave Steffek and two other members of Texas Flyfishers of Houston taught about 25 Veterans the basics of fly fishing and how to tie a fly.

“It’s not, ‘Take a Vet fishing,’” said Steffek, a Texas Flyfishers of Houston member. “We’re teaching skills that are good emotional, social and physical therapy.”

The fly tying classes teach those with upper limb, hand and vision injuries to use their hands and eyes to do the small tasks involved with making fishing flies. This task helps a patient relearn fine motor skills, develop damaged muscles, and improve balance and mobility.

The classes also provide an opportunity for Veterans to enhance their cognitive skills, creativity and socialization. The fishing trips help the patients relax in a different environment from the hospital while using those skills and movements to catch fish.

Patients of all ages, some who have never been fishing before, were excited about learning how to fly fish. They were eager to share the experience with fellow Veterans, thus promoting emotional rehabilitation, camaraderie and friendly competition.