Unconventional Recreation For An Underserved Population

By Barbara Van Camp

Most communities tend to do a good job in addressing the leisure interests of elderly residents who are still active and independent. However, when citizens move into supported-living facilities, they often lose their ability to maintain the community engagement and interaction to which they were once accustomed.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., the Parks and Recreation Department’s Therapeutic Recreation Division has been addressing this concern for 27 years with a unique program. The Balloon Volleyball League for Nursing Home Residents provides lively competition, healthy intra-facility rivalry, and the opportunity for considerable social interaction. In the late 1980s, the program was the brainchild of several nursing-home activity coordinators and the city’s therapeutic-recreation supervisor. Over nearly three decades, the league has grown from the original six teams to up to 24, and involves between 100 and 150 participating residents.

A city-owned, downtown facility, The Coliseum is the site of the monthly competition. The program is planned and facilitated by therapeutic-recreation staff members who do the booking, league advertisement, and team registration. They develop the tournament schedule and make any necessary amendments prior to and at each event.  Staff members also handle the production of first- and second-place paper award ribbons for each match, assure all of the necessary equipment is supplied, set up the venue, and provide light refreshments. Games are typically refereed by the participating teams’ staff. If a few matches become heated, the recreation staff members act as referees. Following each monthly tournament, a ranking sheet suitable for posting and a letter reminding teams about upcoming tournament dates is sent to each team.

Division Of Teams
The league operates from September to March, with the exception of December. Teams are comprised of six players, but substitute players and cheerleaders can come to the matches. Teams register in either a competitive or noncompetitive division, depending on the skill of their current players. At each tournament, teams are guaranteed two games. At these matches, staff members observe the team members for their spirit and sportsmanship. During the sixth month, a double-elimination tournament is held. Teams are placed in new divisions according to their win/loss records. Trophies are awarded to the winners of the two original divisions and to each team depending on its ranking at the end of the elimination tournament. A special “Spirit” trophy is awarded to the team that is the most positive, supportive, and spirited throughout the six months.

Rules And Regulations
The competition courts measure 10 feet wide by 15 feet long. Standards are made with a 4-foot PVC pole attached to a wooden base with a recessed, threaded fitting. A pipe cap with an eyehook screwed into the top creates an anchor for the net. A badminton net—stretched between the standards and wrapped around them to secure the ends—is used as the net. The standards and net bisect the 15-foot length of the court. Each side of the court accommodates six seated players.

The originators modified the rules for volleyball to allow the game to be played from a seated position. Players may be ambulatory or wheelchair users, but rules stipulate that players must remain seated at all times. The balloon is 12-inches round. For ease of visual tracking, a red balloon is used. The serve comes from the front-row players, with each allowed two attempts to execute a fair serve. There is no spiking allowed from the front-row players. All players need to watch out for the hard shots from the back row! Similar to the scoring in volleyball, each team is allowed three hits per side, but the modified rules allow the hits to be made by the same or different players. Game points are won using Rally scoring, with games being played to 15 points.

Friendly Competition
At the Grand Finale tournament in March, nursing-home staff members and clients are encouraged to invite guests and their administrators. This provides the opportunity for teams to compete before supportive and encouraging spectators. Teams are encouraged to bring their lunches and dine together after the award presentation. Trophies are awarded, and a raffle drawing for door prizes adds to the excitement of the event!

As with most therapeutic-recreation endeavors, balloon volleyball extends beyond that of simple recreation. Intrinsic in participation are many physical and social benefits. The league offers this unique population the opportunity for continued participation in a team endeavor. When teams practice together toward a common goal, barriers to relationships are reduced and comradery develops.

Finding Physical Strength
But possibly more important are the physical benefits. Participants’ physical health rallies as joints and muscles are flexed and stretched in reaching for balloons. The core muscles strengthen as the players’ ability to balance and return to center after leaning out for a hit improves. Visual tracking and attention span are enhanced as participants follow the trajectory of the balloon and are called upon by teammates to make a hit or an assist. Recently, a staff member from one of the teams shared that the physical therapists at her facility had been working with a participant to be able to pull his feet back while in a seated position. The man found new motivation in therapy when he was assigned to his team’s front row, and his feet couldn’t extend past the court’s midline! Nursing-home staff finds that, while it’s difficult to motivate patients to work on rehab skills in the facility’s physical-therapy gym, the same people are animated and engaged in completing the rehab goals while practicing balloon volleyball. As this staff person shared, “Everyone knows exercise is better when you’re having fun.”

Unofficial Benefits
In the realm of social and emotional health, the league provides a unique outlet for those who still enjoy competition. Recreation Therapist Suzanna Hargraves, from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, explains that the leagues allow the veterans to “tap into that competitive spirit.” Hargraves further relates that in the Veterans’ Affairs system, balloon volleyball is recognized as an adaptive sport. Recently, the treatment team was developing a discharge plan for a vet who they thought would reside permanently in the facility. His participation in the league was such a motivator, and had so many evidentiary physical and social benefits on his recovery, that his physician insisted his outpatient plan include his continued participation in the league. The league has reacquainted participants with former friends and business associates, with favorite staff members who once worked at their residence but who now work at another, and best of all, with two Army comrades who had not seen each other in 40 years but renewed their relationship at a league event!

The benefits of the league become tangible in people like John, a player residing at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center. Although now unable to attend league matches, he continues to participate in practices at the center. In a recent treatment team meeting, when asked how he was doing, John responded, “Balloon volleyball keeps me alive.” Over the years, the league’s value to an individual participant has been made apparent to me upon occasion. Two instances include a time when a player’s family member shared that his mom had all of her paper ribbons from years of participation taped to the walls in her room, and the mention of the league and a player’s participation was included in a life story in the local paper.

So Long To Skeptics
The Balloon Volleyball League for Nursing Home Residents brings together a diverse population for competition, comradery, and support through spirited and unlikely sport. Recreation staff members new to the program are often skeptical of any level of sport or competition possible among the 80-, 90-, and 100-plus-year-old players in the league. Hargraves notes, “You see them in the halls hunched over in their wheelchairs, unengaged in social interaction. They get on the court, and the flame is lit! The will to compete comes out. They are driven! They want to win! The league provides them a challenge to rise up to.” Some of those same staff members have been dubious about the league and so minimize its value. However, having worked a season, created rapport with the players, and watched the games, they staff members acknowledge the league’s value to the participant, and realize the experience they’ve gained will also warm their hearts for years to come!

Barbara Van Camp, CTRS, CPRP, is a Therapeutic Recreation Supervisor for the Azalea Center & Therapeutic Recreation in St. Petersburg, Fla. Reach her at Barbara.vancamp@stpete.org.