How Occupational Therapists Help Seniors Get Things Done

September 6, 2012
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occupational therapyAn older adult may hear the term “occupational therapy” and retort, “What do I need that for? I don’t have a job!”. Not so fast – We’re here to explain how occupational therapists are important members of a healthcare team.

occupational therapyAn older adult may hear the term “occupational therapy” and retort, “What do I need that for? I don’t have a job!”. Not so fast – We’re here to explain how occupational therapists are important members of a healthcare team.

Occupational therapists are trained healthcare professionals who specialize in helping people live more independent and productive lives. In fact, over one-third of occupational therapy practitioners work with older adults. When an elderly person is affected by illness, accident, injury, disability, or a mental health condition, occupational therapists are the guiding light on the road to recovery.

What does an Occupational Therapist do?

Occupational therapists help older adults overcome physical challenges and enable them to return to home life. They teach self-care skills including homemaking, cooking, eating, dressing and grooming among other activities. Occupational therapy also aids in emotional and social adjustment following injury or illness.

One of the most important roles an occupational therapist plays is promoting independence, self-reliance, and aging in place among elderly clients. They are also elder care advocates: Occupational therapists work with local governments and community groups to ensure that each is doing what it can to help older adults maintain independence.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What’s the difference?

Within the plan of care, it may be recommended a client see both an occupational therapist and physical therapist.  An easy way to remember the OT specialty is that it is about the technical execution of daily activities: OTs help clients perform daily functions or “occupations”. Occupational therapy tends to be more focused on improving life skills and often involves adaptive tools that lead to better quality of life.

A physical therapist, on the other hand, works with a person to improve mobility. They are more likely to treat the physical source of the injury: damaged tissues, muscle, and structure. When a physical therapist treats an older adult with a broken arm, their main goal will be to restore full mobility of the hands and elbow; whereas, an occupational therapist will help that person relearn using eating utensils and daily tasks like combing one’s hair.

There’s an obvious synergy between occupational and physical therapy, making it understandable why both treatments are often presented hand-in-hand. For injured or disabled senior, it’s just as important to work on physical recovery as it is to work on successful aging-in-place and injury prevention.

How can an occupational therapist help a senior age-in-place?

Through an eclectic approach involving many types of activities and therapies, occupational therapists help seniors perform general activities of daily living (ADLs) such as household tasks and personal care that will allow them to age in place for as long as possible. This may include education, exercise, and rehabilitation techniques that encourage relearning of fine motor skills, improvement of basic motor skills, strength, and dexterity.

The therapist can also help clients cope with permanent loss of function. For example, the therapist may guide a person with dementia to make lists and use other prompts to aid recall. For vision loss such as with glaucoma, activities that improve visual acuity, the ability to discern patterns, and perceptual skills may be utilized. Computer programs enable therapists to instruct clients on memory, sequencing, and coordination, which are important for a senior living independently at home.

In the case of dementia, occupational therapists are a valuable resource. As the devastating illness impacts memory, the ability to communicate, and ultimately self-care tasks such as eating and toileting, occupational therapists can help simplify activities and provide sensory stimulation. They can provide recommendations for foods with pleasing texture, soothing music, or suggest a stretching program to eliminate pain. For dementia caregivers, OT practitioners provide offer education and support on how caregivers can interact with and enjoy their loved one.

To promote aging-in-place, occupational therapists can be brought in to consult on home safety. They can offer tips for make the environment safer and easier to navigate, and recommend adaptive equipment, home improvements, and instructions for eliminating environmental hazards that contribute to falls.

Resources

Check out the American Occupational Therapy Association website for Tip Sheets to help older adults cope with specific medical situations, and to determine how an occupational therapist can help improve independence and foster aging in place.

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