Occupational Therapy for the Elderly

By Stefanie R Pruss

April is National Occupational Therapy Month. In honor of this discipline – and in honor of the wonderful therapists who work so diligently every day to provide therapy to our loved ones – it is important to understand what occupational therapy is and how it can be not only useful, but necessary, in our elderly loved ones’ lives. Furthermore, as advocates for our loved ones, it is imperative we know that disciplines such as occupational therapy exist, so that we can suggest it if we feel it is useful or necessary.

Occupational therapy incorporates both assessment and treatment in developing or recovering skills involved in activities of daily living for people with any sort of physical, mental, or cognitive impairment. It also helps maintain these skills in people with these disorders to prevent or slow the progression of any loss. Occupational therapists help to identify and modify their patients’ environmental hazards, which can, in essence, increase their independence. Occupational therapists work with a person’s quality of life.

The benefits of OT are tremendous. Occupational therapy is beneficial for people who have had brain injuries, such as strokes, as well as for those who suffer from cognitive impairment. It is also useful in recovering after a physical trauma, such as a fall. An occupational therapist can help to increase his or her independence by helping him or her to function as best as possible. The OT will assess self-care needs and find out what types of activities are normally involved in the patient routine and interventions will incorporate these activities (from dressing, brushing teeth, using the toilet, getting in and out of a car, using a faucet or kitchen utensils, and even playing cards or other recreational activities) to increase dignity, self-esteem, and safe and independent living.

In addition to providing actual hands-on therapy, OTs can provide home assessments, they can offer suggestions to modify the environment to prevent barriers, ensure safety, and increase the ability of your loved one to function as independently as possible. Examples would include modifications – Installing grab bars in showers and beside the toilets, adding raised toilet seats, installing easy-to-manipulate knobs on stoves and on faucets, purchasing special utensils with larger handles and finger grasps, etc. In addition to providing these suggestions, an OT can work with the care team or care manager (such as the loved one “in charge” or a Geriatric Care Manager) to ensure that all modifications are coordinated, ordered, and handled to completion.

As your occupational therapist works closely with your loved one, he or she can assist with life transitions, as well. In addition to helping with the main diagnosing issue, as we age, we often experience tremendous – and traumatic – life changes. An example would be the passing of one’s spouse who ordinarily handled many household or domestic tasks – Now suddenly Grandpa needs to learn to do the laundry, wash dishes, etc. So, in addition to the emotional devastation, physical problems can arise, as well. Another change would be moving from one’s home – If Grandma lived in her same house for 70 years, she was comfortable with everything there (the oven, cabinets, stairs, etc.), and it can be difficult to adjust to a new physical environment. The list goes on and on.

It is very beneficial to be proactive and maintain open communication with healthcare providers, as occupational therapy is a wonderful source of preventative care. OT is covered by most health insurance plans, as well as Medicare, and can be a great way for your loved one to maintain or increase strength, which can help prevent falls, increase his or her independence, and subsequently help with self-esteem and prevention of depression. It can also keep your loved one at home – and out of hospitals, rehabs, and ultimately long term care facilities – for longer. Quality of life is of utmost importance when considering our elderly loved ones, and knowing that we can incorporate occupational therapy into our loved one’s routine is a wonderful resource.