First, a (very) little history about the therapy of occupation
“I don’t need help finding a job; why do I need an occupational therapist?” I am an occupational therapist, and I have heard this question more than once over the years. It is true that the name of my profession, Occupational Therapy (OT) can be confusing, because it is not obvious from the name what an occupational therapist actually does.
I promise not to bore you (at least not too much), but I feel the need to provide a brief history lesson to explain the origin of the name of my profession. Occupational Therapy was officially founded in 1917 by an eclectic group of individuals: a teacher, a social worker, two architects, a psychiatrist, and a secretary (who took notes for the organization). Each of these individuals had a unique perspective rooted in their respective professions.
This variety of perspectives influenced the core aspects of the Occupational Therapy profession. Although they were from a variety of professions, the founders held a common belief that occupation (think being occupied, or engaged, or doing something as opposed to just sitting around) could be used to heal problems of the mind and body.
In Occupational Therapy, an occupation is not a job or a career. Rather, an occupation is defined as any personally meaningful activity of daily life.
These include basic activities such as getting dressed and bathed to more complex activities such as making a meal or driving a car. Occupations also include leisure pursuits such as painting, hiking, and singing.
So, the founders called my profession Occupational Therapy, because its overarching goal is to improve human’s health and well-being, by helping people to participate in occupations that have meaning and value to them.
That concludes the history lesson!
An excellent resource to help you plan for staying in your home
Now that you know the story behind the name Occupational Therapy, you may be wondering what qualifies an occupational therapist as a specialist in aging in place.
Although you may have previously encountered occupational therapists working in a hospital with individuals who were injured or who had a hip replacement or with children who have disabilities, occupational therapists also work in the home.
Occupational therapists are specialists in understanding how a person’s home environment can either support or hinder the things that person wants and needs to do. Equipped with the knowledge of how our bodies change due to the normal aging process (difficulty reading fine print and achy knees going up stairs are just two of the many examples!) and changes due to disease, occupational therapists are able to assess a person’s abilities and determine what barriers are present in the home. These barriers could be safety hazards or things in the home that make your daily tasks difficult and unenjoyable.
For example, stepping over the side of the bathtub may be painful or difficult for you to do. You might have to hold onto the wall, shower curtain, or soap dish to get in. An occupational therapist would watch you stepping into the tub and assess exactly how you do it by closely observing each part of that motion. (You may think stepping into a tub is a one-step process, but occupational therapists are experts at breaking simply activities into their many parts to see exactly what a person is doing during that activity. It’s called activity analysis.)
The therapist would then be able to determine if there are elements in the environment that could to be changed to improve the safety and ease of stepping into the bathtub. These changes may include adding grab bars exactly where you need them, installing a tub cutout in the tub, or recommending you replace your tub with a low threshold shower.
An occupational therapist would help you determine the best change for you and provide you with resources to help you implement that change.
Tips from an Occupational Therapist About Your Bathroom
Here are a few examples of the types of changes an occupational therapist might suggest for your home.
1. Grab Bars – Not just for hospital use! As in the example above, installing grab bars in your bathtub or shower, under the guidance of an occupational therapist to ensure proper placement, is a good bet for anyone. The right grab bar, in the right place can prevent a fall and make getting into and out of your bathtub or shower easier for you.
Many people, even some remodelers, think that installing a grab bar in a shower according to the American with Disabilities Act Guidelines (ADA) is the best for everyone. That’s just not true. ADA guidelines are for public places, not residential homes and are meant to be used as minimums or averages. Do you think the ideal height grab bar height is the same for a 6’5” man and a 5’2” woman? That’s not likely.
Additionally, grab bars used to be very institutional looking (think hospital bathroom). Now, grab bars come in a variety of colors and finishes to match or compliment your bathroom décor.
2. Time to think about your toilet – Yes, your toilet! Many toilets are too low (the seat is 14 or 15 inches from the floor) making getting up and down difficult and adding increased stress on joints. Consider installing a comfort height commode which will give you three or four additional inches of height, making something you do multiple times a day (getting up and down from the toilet) easier and safer.
3. Getting the water – You may not give much thought to your sink faucet or shower head, but an occupational therapist does! At your bathroom sink, a single lever faucet is the easiest to operate. It does not require the twisting motion of knob-type handle; this gives our finger joints a break from that grabbing and twisting motion. In your shower, an adjustable shower head can be a luxury and be flexible in use. Having a bar with a sliding shower head allows the user to alter the height of the shower head making a more customized showering experience for multiple users. It also works well if someone prefers to sit on a shower bench to shower or shave!
I hope you have learned some new tidbits from this article and will check out future ones! Thanks for reading.