Getting back to day-to-day life can be difficult after a hospital stay or surgery, but this is particularly true for veterans.

That’s why the Dayton Veteran Affairs Medical Center offers its patients recreation therapy. Recreation therapy addresses physical, cognitive, emotional, psychosocial and leisure issues with recreational activities like fishing, woodworking, bowling or even playing cards.

“They’re having fun, they’re engaging in something that they enjoy, but they’re getting physical and cognitive benefits out of it,” says Jennifer Fultz, recreation therapy supervisor for the Dayton VA.

For example, a veteran who enjoyed playing cards before they had a stroke may partake in card games to work on their fine motor skills or a veteran who had a joint replacement may be encouraged to play with a Nintendo Wii video game console to work on their balance.

The Dayton VA has six nationally certified specialists who work with veterans with a variety of needs. Fultz says that the recreation therapy department has helped veterans in long-term care, palliative care, skilled nursing and inpatient rehabilitation and with deficits such as substance use disorders, mental illness, PTSD, spinal cord injury and more.

According to Fultz, recreation therapy has multiple benefits. In addition to providing the medical therapy they may need, recreation therapy helps veterans get back to what they enjoy most in life.

“When that part of our lives are taken away or hindered because of injury or illness that’s very hard for a person. Our goal is to help them get back into doing things that help get them the quality of life that they want and to have a balanced lifestyle,” says Fultz.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs itself sees great benefit in recreation therapy—it’s the nation’s leading employer of recreation therapists, says Fultz.

Fultz says that veterans are seeing the benefits, too.

“A lot of veterans haven’t heard of it before … so sometimes they don’t necessarily understand the benefit initially until they start working with us and then they realize, ‘Oh, this doesn’t actually feel like therapy,’” she says.

Fultz and the other members of the recreation therapy department also work with veterans looking to get back to competing—Dayton VA veterans participate in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, National Veterans Golden Age Games and National Veterans Wheelchair Games. “We travel around the country with those veterans each year for national competition,” she says.

What Fultz finds most satisfying, though, is helping veterans get back to the activities that bring them joy and fulfillment.

“I personally enjoy seeing people accomplish something that they’re initially against doing or didn’t think that they could do,” she says. “When people are coming in for rehab of some sort recreation is not a priority for them. They may not have been engaging in recreation at all. They don’t have things necessarily that make them happy and that get them out and interacting with their friends (or) their loved ones. They don’t have things to do on their own so we really want to get them back into a regular leisure pattern.”