VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Recreation Therapy Not Just Fun and Games
Recreation was established by VA in the Rehabilitation Medicine Service office many decades ago. The complexity and interdependence of each patient's physiological, psychological and social needs were recognized and therapeutic recreation developed into a specialized, professional field.
At VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS), the Recreation Therapy Service (RTS) prides itself in their mission statement, “To provide clinical and holistic services which improve functional levels, promote optimal wellness, facilitate community reintegration, and enhance quality of life.”
VAPAHCS RTS has evolved significantly over the past five years. New staff, innovative programs, and buildings have been added to the expansion of VAPAHCS. With these new developments, the Service has taken strong steps to pursue and produce measured outcomes by utilizing program evaluation methods to capture the effectiveness and impact on the Veterans. Therapists are receiving training to understand the methods of collecting and analyzing patient reported outcomes which will drive the delivery of their treatments.
Recreation and Creative Arts Therapies are best described as non-conventional, non-pharmacological, and non-invasive methods. The therapist and the Veteran agree on the methods (for example - art, music, adapted sports, meditation, canine interventions, outdoor adventure programs) aiming to produce positive clinical results leading to an improvement on the Veteran’s health and wellness. Commonly, these approaches have also helped the Veteran realize these meaningful experiences could indeed be an alternative to traditional approaches in terms of managing his or her health.
The Service receives tremendous sustenance from the health care system, local universities, and community organizations, who truly believe in the value and effectiveness of Recreation and Creative Art therapies for Veterans. Multiple programs have been successful due to the ongoing support of community partnerships.
In 2013, the Welcome Center in Menlo Park was funded and built by a local donor, John Arrillaga, to create a site for Recreation and Creative Arts Therapists to expand the programs they provide to Veterans. This building houses a historical room, community room, kitchen, art therapy room, fitness room and a service dog training area. The program offers therapeutic interventions for Veterans and active-duty military personnel by teaching those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to train service dogs for their comrades with combat-related physical disabilities. Veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD and train a service dog report less anxiety and depression. In addition, they tend to be more sociable, have a positive outlook, a mission-driven focus, and a renewed sense of purpose. Moreover, the Welcome Center prides itself on providing other programs and classes, such as an open guitar studio, art therapy, CrossFit, yoga, boot camp, healthy cooking and nutrition, and special events.
One of VAPAHCS RTS' strengths is its ability to create innovative recreation therapy programs with community partners. One example is the Lava Lake Injured Veteran Equine Program (LIVE). This program is a week-long wilderness therapeutic riding experience in the backcountry of Idaho. In order to participate in this excursion, Veterans must be willing to complete several weeks of equine-assisted therapy sessions (arena to trail riding) to acquire the necessary basic riding, grooming and tacking skills. The therapists assess Veterans’ competencies in order to prepare them for a successful outcome.
The LIVE Program is not only the “next step” in equine therapy, but also a culminating experience. Each year, two groups of Veterans from the Polytrauma Network Site, Mental Health Intensive Case Management, HUD-VASH, and PTSD Outpatient Clinic travel to Idaho as an opportunity to use and enhance their skills. Since 2012, 50 Veterans participated in this program. Outcomes from these trips show that each of the participating Veterans was capable of undertaking a riding trip through backcountry of 100 miles or more over the course of days. 60% of the HUD-VASH Veteran group reported the successful use of grounding techniques to include skills specifically associated with Emotion Regulation. Over half of the HUD-VASH Veteran group remained open to new/different or revisited experiences throughout LIVE participation.
Outcomes from these trips show that Veterans become much more confident and self-sufficient, which improves their recovery in day-to-day life. A Veteran shared with RT staff that he felt that he met his goals for the trip because he realized the benefits of being outside of his comfort zone, benefits of respite from work, and that he learned more about the proper ways to sit on a horse.
The future of VAPAHCS Recreation Therapy Service is exciting. Within a year, the Palo Alto Division will open a new, state-of-the-art Fitness and Wellness Facility attached to the Aquatic Center, and the Menlo Park Division will be opening a Sports Field Complex with a Field House. Both of these facilities will provide adapted sports programs, and health and fitness opportunities for Veterans.
Throughout the Service, Recreation and Creative Arts Therapists and Therapy Assistants continually strengthen their existing programs as well as develop new modalities to enhance the recovery and reintegration of the Veterans served. These new interventions include bio feedback and virtual reality in the Community Living Centers, and a community garden plot for the Veterans Recovery Center.
Visit our website to learn more about programs and events offered through Recreation Therapy Service at VAPAHCS.