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Any long-time resident of Whatcom County knows that the change in seasons also means a change in the amount of sunlight we can expect to see. Or expect to not see, especially during the winter. While different people use different coping strategies, Summit Place Assisted Living has made a science of keeping the dark days lively, including having a certified therapeutic recreation specialist (CTRS) on staff.

Right for the Job

Summit’s CTRS, Amy Schmidt, grew up on Shaw Island, which measures roughly five by seven miles, and is home to about 180 people. At that size there’s a good chance you’ll have to leave the island at some point, but it also means you’ll have a well-developed sense of what it means to be part of a community.

Schmidt came to Bellingham to study anthropology, but her father was involved in an accident that left him hospitalized. He underwent rehab and the folks who helped him through that made an incredible impression on Schmidt and her family. “I decided to take a break from school, but my mother found a recreational therapy program at Western, and I thought about how those people made a big impact, and I thought I’d like to do that,’” she says. That led her to an internship at Summit’s sister facility, Mount Baker Care Center, where the life enrichment director described how important community is there. “My ears perked up, and then I saw how the staff members interacted with the residents, so I applied.”

Amy Schmidt learned the value of community growing up on an island with 180 people — and carries its importance with her in her role at Summit. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

Not Just Fun and Games

“Therapeutic Recreation” might suggest entertainment and enjoyment, but it’s just as important to provide the proper physical and cognitive stimulation, as well. With that in mind, Summit residents are offered activities that bring mind, body, and the five senses together. “During the summer we try to do a lot of outings, like to the Fragrance Garden,” says Schmidt. “We’ll go fly kites at Marine Park, and we do a lot of gardening, barbecues and picnics.”

When the cold weather comes around, they make sure those outings take them somewhere indoors. They have adaptive equipment that allows residents to take trips to the bowling alley; lunch and coffeeshop outings are also popular. In December, evening drives through holiday light displays are always highly anticipated.

And as the days get shorter and darker, Summit staff focus more on community building and social activities — and make sure to invite families to participate. “Last week we had a massive high tea, where we decorated the dining room and set it up with different teas and foods,” Schmidt says. “The folks who live here were able to bring their families in to sit and visit and meet their neighbors. It’s important to have some camaraderie and familiarity between different families and their loved ones.”

The indoor garden is a popular place to spend quality time at Summit. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

Seasonal Specialties

Regular year-round guests, like the Whatcom Humane Society, bring in small animals for visits, and the Bellingham Public Library drops off fresh books each month. But additional groups make appearances during the winter months to keep the hallways warm and happy.

“The Girl Scouts are going to come in and do some caroling, and the Bellingham High School Choir just came in and they were phenomenal,” says Schmidt. “Last week, folks from Eden Health Care came in dressed as Santa and an elf and went around door to door.”

While there’s a seemingly never-ending supply of seasonal music to listen to throughout December, the culinary arts will be on display, as well. In addition to themed holiday meals, there are activities like making and decorating cookies, a hot buttered rum social, and decorating and hanging wreaths.

A new tradition started at Summit not long ago, and Schmidt can’t help but laugh as she describes it. “A staff member dressed up as a reindeer, and we gave the residents Nerf guns. And then the staff member ran around the halls, and dodged into doors and in between trees, and the residents tried to hit them. It was a huge hit, and now every year we do it with the Easter Bunny, too. They love it.”

Keeping a full schedule of social activities is a sure way to keep your days bright during our dark months. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

Creating a Culture of Caring and Sharing

Summit keeps an eye out for residents that belong to any number of different cultures and religions and will produce a variety of dinners and other get-togethers that celebrate those particular observances.

“Even if we don’t have anyone here who represents a particular culture,” Schmidt says, “we like to make an educational activity out of other holidays and show how other people celebrate the season.”

When it comes to keeping the winter days warm, Summit staff see a huge payoff when community members make one-on-one visits with residents. They keep information about who would like social calls, and what sorts of interests they have, so that visitors can be sure to make a positive connection. And any staff member will tell you about the huge impact it has when a resident spends an afternoon in conversation, digging at the indoor garden, or working at arts and crafts with a caring friend.

Anyone interested in visiting, and perhaps bringing a pet along with them, is invited to send an email to mtbakeractivities@gmail.com for more information.

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