Senior Health: Can you benefit from occupational therapy?

Leanne Legg

Occupational therapy, or OT as it is sometimes called, is used to support individuals of all ages in being able to do what they need to do and want to do after an illness, injury, surgery or stroke.

The goal of OT is to help people improve their independence by focusing on physical, cognitive and emotional issues they may be experiencing due to the residual effects of their illness or injury. Occupational therapists work with patients who are hospitalized, in short-or long-term rehabilitation and also with outpatients.

Many people are aware of the benefits of physical therapy but are less or unaware of the benefits occupational therapy can achieve. One of the major differences between the two is that physical therapy generally helps to heal the injury that has occurred and improve movement, while occupational therapy helps patients learn ways to perform daily tasks and the activities they enjoy despite their challenges. Occupational therapists also help those who have difficulty with cognitive (thinking or reasoning) ability or memory loss, such as can occur with brain injury, aging or illness.

Occupational therapists help to develop, maintain or recover the skills necessary to perform daily living skills such as toileting, bathing, dressing, fixing meals and eating. Working with each individual, they design methods of doing things that will be efficient and help the patient conserve energy. Sometimes, that may mean identifying adaptive equipment that will make it much easier to perform a task. For example, a sock aid is a device that helps the user put their socks on without having to bend over or pull their leg up on their lap. By using this device, some with limited mobility can still put on their own socks safely and efficiently, while conserving energy.

Working on patients’ fine motor skills, strength and range of motion are often part of the individual’s treatment plan as even small gains in these areas can vastly improve independence and quality of life. Occupational therapists help patients develop improved hand skills through methods such as fine motor practice or positioning that will allow them effective and efficient movement.

When someone has a brain injury, it can take time for the brain to heal. Cognitive ability may be lessened and memory difficulties can occur. Crossword puzzles, using a daily calendar and listening to audio books are examples of ways to help improve cognitive ability. Memory loss can be improved by creating individualized memory aids and playing memory games.

Besides those who have had an injury, stroke or illness, some of the types of patients who can benefit from OT are those who have arthritis, MS, ALS or just aging, and finding it more difficult to walk, eat, etc. Therapists can help patients learn how to hold their hands differently to ease pain. They may recommend some range of motion or stretching exercises.

Another advantage of having the expertise of an occupational therapist is that they often work with the patient’s caregivers and/or loved ones to help them understand how they can best help patients achieve their goals or carry out their activities safely and efficiently. They can help them choose the best medical equipment (such as shower chairs, grab bars, power lift recliners) for their loved one’s care.

The inability to do the things you once did or the realization that if you were to do something you enjoy, even for a short time, you would be exhausted; or the thought that you cannot ever do something again is generally very frustrating and distressing. This can lead to depression and a pulling away from others and social activities that you would normally enjoy. If this sounds like the feelings you may be experiencing, reach out to your primary care provider or specialist and ask if a referral to occupational therapy might be helpful. The guidance they can bring to you, often with small changes, can make the world of difference in your outlook on life in general.

Leanne Legg is a licensed occupational therapist at UHS Delaware Valley Hospital in Walton. She cares for both outpatient and inpatient (swing bed) rehabilitation patients at the hospital’s main campus in Walton. To learn more call 607-865-2155.

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