How Does An Occupational Therapist Help Older People?

How Does An Occupational Therapist Help Older People?

We are all getting older. Aging brings a lot of changes, both physical and mental. I don’t need to list them all for you here. But one of the toughest parts of the aging process is losing the ability to do things that once were incredibly simple. When these everyday tasks get harder, people tend to feel confused, frustrated, and sometimes even embarrassed.

Luckily there is help available. An occupational therapist is the perfect person to help with maintaining and regaining independence. 

Read on to learn 6 benefits of occupational therapy for people as they get older. 

First, What is Occupational Therapy?

Many people understand what physical therapy is, but they're a little confused as to what exactly occupational therapy (OT) entails.

Much of the confusion comes from the word “occupation”. Occupation, in the case of occupational therapy, means
the everyday activities that people do to occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life. This includes things people need to, want to and are expected to do- everything from activities of daily living like getting dressed and using the bathroom to caring for family members, things you do for fun, volunteering and work.

Occupational therapy helps people at all stages of life develop, maintain, or recover the skills they need to perform activities (occupations) that are meaningful and necessary.

So, how can an occupational therapist help someone who is aging? Let’s take a look.

1. Make Everyday Tasks Easier

A big part of an occupational therapist’s job is to help make daily tasks easier and safer. Tasks that have been made harder by illness, injury or aging.

For many older people, normal daily activities like getting dressed, cooking and using the bathroom are harder and can be exhausting. This can be due to illness, injury or the general changes of aging. 

When daily tasks are harder, people are less inclined to want to participate in other important aspects of life, such as work, social gatherings, family outings, and hobbies. This can quickly lead to feelings of depression and isolation.

This is where occupational therapy can be so valuable. OTs help people improve their motor skills, strength, dexterity and endurance to make tasks easier. If needed, they teach compensation techniques to make it possible to do things independently, even if they needs to be done a little differently. 

2. Fall Prevention

Did you know that 1 in 4 Americans over the age of 65 have a fall each year? Every 11 seconds, an elderly adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall.  And every 19 minutes someone dies from a fall. Falls are serious. In addition to the risk of immediate injury, falls often lead to fear of falling again. This makes someone less likely to move around which makes them weaker. This leads to, you guessed it- more falls.

Falls are often brushed off as “No big deal” but these statistics highlight just how dangerous falls can be.

Occupational therapists teach people balance and muscle building exercises to help prevent falls. If needed, OTs will also recommend different ways to approach tasks and adaptive equipment that can help maintain independence and safety.

3. Memory Compensation

Most people think about the physical benefits of occupational therapy. However, occupational therapy works with both cognitive and physical abilities.

For example, if someone has memory loss, the occupational therapist will assess their areas of strength and weakness. They will then develop a plan that involves maintaining the strong areas and strengthening the weak areas.

This can involve activities to increase memory and problem solving skills and using techniques and devices to compensate for decreased abilities. 

4. Mental Health & Happiness

It can be very hard to accept that the changes of aging are making life more difficult and that things need to be done differently. People often think  “How am I going to spend the rest of my life living this way?” The embarrassment at the changes can lead to decreased participation in activities you love like work and socializing. This starts a downward spiral of depression, decreased physical abilities and decreased mental abilities. 

An occupational therapist can help people realize that although their body and mind are changing, and things might need to be done a little differently, life can still be very fulfilling. OTs help give people the confidence and determination they need to keep doing things they love and to keep having new adventures.

5. Home Modifications

Many people live in homes with features that make them unsafe and make tasks harder as they get older. 

Things like stairs, slippery floors, and bathtubs and showers can all pose a safety risk. And home layouts can make tasks harder than they need to be. 

An occupational therapist will look at the layout of the home and make recommendations for modifications. This can include things like:

  • Handrails and grab bars in the shower and throughout the home
  • Adding adaptive equipment 
  • Wheelchair ramps
  • Slip-resistant flooring
  • Home monitoring or medical alert systems
  • Rearranging a kitchen or bathroom

These modifications will make the home safer and promote independent living.

6. Adjusting to Vision Loss

By the age of 65, approximately 1 in 3 Americans have some form of vision loss.

Fixing vision issues when we are younger is often as simple as a trip to the eye doctor for glasses or contacts. With older people, it is sometimes not so simple. Some vision issues that affect us as we age can’t be easily fixed and this can lead to a struggle with performing everyday activities. 

An occupational therapist can perform activities that help improve visual skills. They also can suggest changes in the home or workplace to make sure vision loss does not get in the way of everyday life.

For example, an occupational therapist may suggest:

  • Removing clutter in the home that poses as a tripping hazard
  • Using color-coded tags to help identify objects
  • Adding more lighting and contrasting to the home
  • Placing magnifiers in the home
  • Placing bright stickers on important buttons, such as dishwashers, laundry machines, and microwaves
  • Painting walls a light color, and then painting outlets a dark color so they’re easy to locate
  • Labeling medication with large print
  • Color coding medication
  • Placing bright tape on steps to prevent falling

Some of this is so simple and inexpensive but can make all the difference for someone who struggles with vision loss.

Occupational therapy can help people in so many ways. If you or someone you love is finding it harder to be safe and independent, an OT is the perfect professional to call.

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