Occupational therapy focuses often on helping injured or disabled people complete the physical tasks necessary for jobs and job-related tasks. Yet many seniors no longer work for a living, are retired, and are not planning to work again for the rest of their lives. Why, then, would a doctor recommend occupational therapy for a senior?

For many people receiving occupational therapy, the idea is to focus on daily living. For seniors especially, this means activities of daily living (ADLs). This could include bathing themselves, toileting, eating by themselves, getting dressed, and being able to get up out of a chair unassisted. For various healthcare-related reasons, such as diabetes-related numbness in the feet or limited mobility due to arthritis, many seniors need help learning how to move through their world in new ways that work for their bodies. That is where an occupational therapist comes in.

Making ADLs Happen

Through training sessions and lots of cooperation, occupational therapists show seniors how to continue their productive lives beyond the workplace and their current medical state. They collaborate with the senior, family, and friends to find out what goals are important, what obstacles are in place, and what a senior needs in order to feel supported and to be, ultimately, successful. What is most important to occupational therapists is finding ways for their patients to maintain their dignity and be as independent as possible. This leads to longer, happier lives.

For example, an occupational therapist may monitor eating patterns for a senior who complains of having low energy, rendering ADLs impossible at times. The occupational therapist might find that the elderly person's eating habits are erratic, as many seniors' eating patterns are, and the senior simply isn't getting enough calories to sustain energy. In such a case an occupational therapist might recommend a better eating plan, including tasty nutritional supplementary drinks taken at regular intervals during the day to boost caloric intake.

Other recommendations may include physical therapy or home improvements such as railings or large-number telephones for the visually impaired. Some of these solutions may seem simple or obvious, but the sum total of many small changes can make a huge difference in quality of life and ability to age in place. Occupational therapists that work specifically with seniors are trained and experienced enough to solve many problems that would stump others.

Finding a Good Occupational Therapist

A good occupational therapist for seniors:

  • Collaborates.
    • If the occupational therapist wants to maintain a meaningful relationship with the senior, he or she will collaborate meaningfully with the senior and with all others in the senior's life. Collaboration may mean meeting as a group to discuss solutions, or it may mean simply gathering information on the source of problems from many people, but it always means putting the needs and the goals of their patients first.
  • Promotes independence.
    • A good occupational therapist knows that aging in place is the best option for the emotional and physical health of most seniors. Instead of opting for expensive and often emotionally difficult care in a facility, occupational therapists will develop plans focused on independent living for as long as possible.
  • Takes into account many variables.
    • Occupational therapists must take into account the varied situations of any senior, including medical issues, the layout of a home, whether or not the senior has or needs in-home care, and any physical discomforts present. For example, if they are assessing fall risk, they must be able to account for the obstacles in the home as well as any vertigo or balance issues. The solution may be in-home monitoring or a reorganization of furniture (or any number of other solutions), but it must work for the senior receiving care.
  • Makes a senior feel comfortable and respected.
    • The goal of occupational therapy is for the patient to live a full and safe life. A therapist who does not recognize what a patient needs to feel safe and happy will likely miss the mark on how to help the person complete the ADLs. Family caregivers should find a therapist who can address their seniors' needs and make them feel confident, respected, and safe.
  • Reflects on solutions and their efficacy.
    • If something isn't working, a good occupational therapist should know this and find a better solution. They will build deadlines into a plan--a date by which a new routine or other solution should be showing positive results. If not, it is time to move on to another solution. Sticking pridefully or stubbornly to a particular solution helps no one, so a good occupational therapist knows when to change tactics and move on.

Sources

Clark, F., Azen, S. P., Carlson, M., Mandel, D., LaBree, L., Hay, J., Zemke, R., Jackson, J., and Lipson, L. (2001). Embedding Health-Promoting Changes Into the Daily Lives of Independent-Living Older Adults. The Journal of Gerontology, 56(1):60-63. Available at https://psychsocgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/56/1/P60.full. Retrieved April 5, 2016.

Di Rado, Alicia. (January 26, 2001). Occupational therapy appears to offer lasting benefits to seniors. USC News. University of Southern California. Available at https://news.usc.edu/6067/Occupational-therapy-appears-to-offer-lasting-benefits-to-seniors/. Retrieved April 1, 2016.

Stephenson, Stephanie. Occupational Therapy in Productive Aging: The Top 10 Things Everyone Needs to Know. Living Life to Its Fullest. The American Occupational Therapy Assocation, Inc. Available at https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=6&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi0t4PGj-7LAhVIRyYKHZ5qCEQQFgg7MAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.aota.org%2F-%2Fmedia%2Fcorporate%2Ffiles%2Fpractice%2Fmanage%2Fpresentation-resources%2Fgeriatric%2Fot-in-productive-aging-top-10-things.pptx&usg=AFQjCNHFXNskDKCVOEvZY0BWLjGaPV2C1A&sig2=2eRY9dZzrfjV2qd5zY_Hvg&bvm=bv.118443451,d.eWE. Retrieved April 1, 2016

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