Ecumen Employee Jen Rasmussen: Making Life Better by Making Life Fun

Jen Rasmussen is Director of Fun at Ecumen Lakeview Commons. Today she has unleashed a feisty dog and a small child on the residents of the Maplewood assisted living community. Her boss passes through the commotion and jokingly tells her she is fired — for the third time this week. 

Gus, the spirited two-year-old Border Collie, is chasing a ball all around the expansive lobby as 18-month-old Nora Bawek, the community’s youngest volunteer, shrieks with delight.  That seems to be just fine with the residents.

Everyone is smiling.  People are pulling closer to the action — picking up the ball and tossing it to Gus and vying for Nora’s attention. Jen likes what she sees. Fun is happening, according to plan.

Jen’s official title is Director of Therapeutic Recreation, and mainly her job is to help residents stay physically active and socially engaged. Fun is highly therapeutic.

Most people intuitively know that inactivity and social isolation are not conducive to good health. But now reputable scientific studies go a step further, documenting that staying active and involved have significant life-extending benefits.

“I’m a big believer in use-it-or-lose-it,” Jen says. “Regardless of age, we need to use our minds and bodies.”

Jen and her staff constantly plot, arrange and implement stimulating activities — offering something for everyone. That means they get to know all the residents on a deeply personal level and have a keen understanding of what activities will have broad appeal.

Jen says usually about 20 to 30 residents come out for all the large group activities. Others pick and choose, and a very small number need to be coaxed out of their apartments.  Jen and her staff will go to great lengths to find activities that resonate.  Sometimes the solution is as simple as taking someone to a favorite fast food restaurant.

Activities and events have a broad range and change constantly based on resident requests.  But there are staples like group reading of the newspaper each morning, shopping trips and exercise programs.  Usually there are eight or nine scheduled activities each day, along with evening events two nights a week.

Jen says one of her all-time favorite events was a re-creation of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  She is also a big fan of the annual first-day-of-spring pie toss, which happened last Friday.  “Basically people get to toss a boat of Ready Whip in the staff’s faces,” she explains.

Jen has been in this job for 13 years. In her previous job, she used to drive by Lakeview Commons on her way to and from work. One day, the community was putting on a big outdoor carnival and, on a whim, she stopped in, thinking she might try to get a second job there, working part-time. She interviewed and was offered the director job. 

In addition to activities, she supervises volunteers and transportation.  Nora, her youngest volunteer, comes twice a month with her mother, Carrie, who used to work in dining services at Lakeview Commons. 

Jen says she’s a planner by nature and loves structure, but the job has other ideas.  “Every day is different, and I love that about my job,” she says. “ I’ve learned you just have to go with the flow, or you go crazy. I never know what I’m going to get into when I walk in the door. And that’s OK.” 

Jen went to Mankato State University and graduated with a degree in recreation, parks and leisure studies, with an emphasis on recreational therapy.  While in school, she had a job caring for seniors as a certified nursing assistant (CNA).  “That’s when I discovered that I had a heart for seniors,” she says. “I’m always amazed at how much you can learn from older people. They know so much.”

Out of college, she first started working with children with special needs, but soon felt the pull to go back to working with older people. She has worked in the geriatric behavioral unit at Bethesda Hospital and in other senior communities before coming to Lakeview Commons.

Most of the time, whatever Jen is doing, Gus is close by, usually looking for someone to toss him a ball or give him a treat.  A couple of years ago, Jen became intrigued with the idea of having a dog at Lakeview Commons. 

Up until then, she hadn’t been much of a dog person, but as a project in Ecumen’s Velocity leadership development program, she researched the therapeutic benefits of dogs.  In short order, she adopted a rescue Border Collie named Bauer who roamed Lakeview Commons for a couple of years.  Bauer had a seizure and died young about a year ago.

That’s when Gus came on the scene and has been running the halls ever since.  “Dogs just bring such joy to the residents,” Jen says. “Gus is the perfect house pet for Lakeview Commons. This is truly his home.  He enjoys every minute of the day here, and he helps make Lakeview Commons home for many of our residents.”

Speaking of Gus, there he is again, with that look on his face.  Would someone please throw him a ball?