Occupational Therapy for the Elderly

Occupational therapy is a treatment that incorporates meaningful activity to promote participation in every day life. Occupational therapists work with seniors in different settings including assisted living facilities, nursing homes, adult day care centers and community senior centers. A therapist always begins with an evaluation to determine what difficulties a person might be having that interfere with independence. Here are just a few examples of ways that an occupational therapist can help seniors with disabilities:

  • Teach a person with arthritis to protect the joints and conserve energy.
  • Help a person with limited range-of-motion to do stretching exercises and use adaptive equipment such as a sponge with a long handle
  • Train a person with an amputation to put a prosthesis on and off
  • Help a person with low vision adapt the environment to avoid glare and increase color contrast
  • Help a person with memory impairment organize and label draws and cabinets

How is Occupational Therapy different from Physical Therapy?

Many people do not understand how occupational therapy differs from physical therapy. The primary difference is that the occupational therapist assesses the patient’s ability to perform his daily “occupations” or activities and the physical therapist focuses on improving mobility. When a physical therapist treats a person with a hip fracture his goal may be for the patient to walk and use the stairs. An occupational therapist, on the other hand, may recommend bathtub grab bars and a raised toilet seat to increase safety and independence during self-care “occupations”.

Occupational Therapy during the Early Stages of Memory Loss

Perhaps no other disease afflicting the elderly is as devastating as a dementia that impacts memory and abilities to communicate, solve problems and ultimately perform self-care tasks such as eating and toileting. Occupational therapists are trained to assess the patient’s cognitive status and use behavioral interventions to address the changes in personality that may be upsetting to caregivers. Occupational therapy during the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease centers on

  • Adapting the home for safety
  • Maximizing the patient’s remaining skills in order to be as independent as possible
  • Educating caregivers and helping them find social and emotional assistance such as support groups and respite care.

Occupational Therapy during the later Stages of Memory Loss

As the disease progresses, the role of the occupational therapist focuses on improving quality of life by simplifying activities and providing sensory stimulation such as soothing music. Therapists also make recommendations related to food textures and dining equipment. For example, a patient who has difficulty chewing may need to eat ground foods and use a spoon with a large handle. Occupational therapists also

  • Assess the patient for risk of falling
  • Asses seating and positioning needs in beds or wheelchairs
  • May recommend a stretching program to prevent contractions and pain.

Regardless of the patient’s stage of Alzheimer’s disease- occupational therapists are a great resource for caregivers who want to learn how to interact with and enjoy activities with a loved one.

Written by occupational therapist Barbara Smith. M.S., OTR

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