If a physician has recommended “occupational therapy” for the older adult in your life, you may be wondering exactly what the phrase means. Perhaps you’ve heard of “physical therapy” — you’ve talked to people who’ve had it as they come out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Maybe they’ve even been treated at their homes. But your loved one is well past retirement age — why do they need help with their occupation?
There are many misunderstandings about occupational therapy[1. “4 Myths About Occupational Therapy,” May 29, 2013, https://health.abc4.com/articles/355/4-Myths-About-Occupational-Therapy] for seniors (the first one is, it has nothing to do with getting a job!). Below, we try to clear some of them up and help you see if this treatment is right for your loved one.
Physical vs. Occupational Therapy for Seniors: There’s a Difference?
Physical and occupational therapy for seniors are often confused with one another. The basic difference is that physical therapy addresses functional mobility, while occupational therapy addresses the tasks we use mobility for. For example, physical therapy might work on strengthening hip and leg muscles after a hip replacement. Occupational therapy might help the patient relearn how to sit and transfer after they receive their new hip.
Both may involve helping the patient adapt to life in their new physical condition (i.e., their “new normal”). An occupational therapist often teaches patients how to use specific equipment to help them function and cope. These include reachers, splints, dressing aides, and specialized utensils and dishes, depending on the patient’s physical limitations. The goal is to help the patient achieve maximum functioning, which generally means getting as close to pre-injury independence levels as possible.
Occupational Therapy Can Help Older Adults Maintain Independence
Occupational therapy is often key in helping older adults complete “Activities of Daily Living,” or ADL’s. These are essential tasks such as dressing, bathing, toileting, grooming, walking, and transferring. Without the ability to complete these tasks independently, the patient is at risk for permanent facility placement (though this can be avoided with the use of a home health aide).
In addition to maintaining a patient’s ability to complete ADL’s, occupational therapy can encourage autonomy in other ways. One condition where this therapy can be invaluable is dementia[2. “Dementia and the Role of Occupational Therapy,” https://www.aota.org/about-occupational-therapy/professionals/mh/dementia.aspx]. In addition to issues with self-care, dementia can impact memory and communication. Occupational therapy can teach patients and their families how to simplify activities (including communicating) so they’re in line with the patient’s current functional level.
Another area in which you can employ those with occupational therapy backgrounds and knowledge is home safety consults. During a consult, a professional can advise you and your loved one on ways to make their home safer and easier to traverse, as well as recommend adaptive changes (such as grab bars in the shower).
Occupational Therapy at Home
If your loved one is working with an occupational therapist outside the home, the therapist should make sure they know how to put any exercises they learned to good use. This is usually done when preparing for discharge from a facility. A qualified therapist will educate their patient and make sure that the transition to independence is as smooth as possible.
Sometimes this transition involves continuing therapy on a less intense (but still critical) basis. An occupational therapist may make home visits a few times a week until the patient’s maximum functioning is reached. Or the patient may elect to go to therapy outside the home for the same purpose, often at a qualified outpatient center.
No matter what option you and your loved one choose, there are numerous benefits to this type of therapy. And it’s better to get it sooner than later. That’s because, as we grow older, we are less likely to regain functioning once it’s lost. Talk to your loved one’s physician today about whether occupational therapy is right for them.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.