People can remain active as they age and through their lives. Sometimes, though, they may need a bit of guidance from a trained therapist.
The phrase, “a normal part of aging” can be heard throughout various health care settings. The speaker is likely using the phrase to validate, or indicate the normality, of what older adults are experiencing, but those words can be perceived as showing a lack of understanding of clients’ symptoms.
And while it can be expected that our bodies will change throughout our lifespan, we should not assume this will keep us from engaging in activities we always enjoyed: a loss of engagement in meaningful activity can typically lead to an overall depressed mood.
Giving life meaning
This loss can be triggered by retirement and loss of productivity, by the death of a friend or loved one, change in our living situation, change to our physical health, and so on. An occupational therapist can provide strategies that will allow a person to remain active through their life, regardless of physical or mental changes.
The profession of occupational therapy developed in Canada during the First World War, when troops were returning home with a change in physical and mental functioning. Originally called “war aides”, the early therapists were finding ways for troops to engage in everyday activities despite such changes. Now, occupational therapists can be found throughout the world in a variety of settings.
The word “occupation” here can simply be understood as “role”, the purpose of an occupational therapist being to make it easier for an individual to engage or re-engage in meaningful occupations.
The first step in this process is assessment. Areas assessed include mood or mental health, functional/physical ability and cognitive ability. Assessments can be both formal and informal, and their purpose is to understand how the client is managing within their environment. Through assessment, occupational therapists can determine whether remedial treatment is appropriate (in stroke rehab, for example, to provide treatment directly to the affected hand) as opposed to compensatory strategies (use of adaptive equipment to make a task easier, such as a wheelchair if a person is no longer mobile and physical rehabilitation is not an option).
Occupational therapy is a client-centered profession, and these therapists collaborate with their clients to understand what is most important to them and the areas where they would most like to make improvements.
Let’s look at an example. A client in his 70s has recently moved into a new assisted living facility, as he was not managing well in his own home. This move resulted in feelings of lost independence, and the client is isolating himself in his suite. Staying inside has resulted in deconditioning of the man’s muscles, leading to falls.
Accenting the positive
An occupational therapist can make recommendations for activities that will strengthen the man’s body and find equipment that will make it safer for him to move in and out of the tub. He can be taught self-management strategies to address his low mood, learning how our bodies respond physically to depression, looking at ways to break activities down into smaller more attainable tasks and challenging negative self-talk.
The occupational therapist can then provide support for a client’s integration in their new environment and encourage them to develop an overall sense of independence through this change.
Let’s challenge that phrase, “a normal part of aging”, and instead find a way to properly assess and understand the needs of individuals to optimize their sense of wellbeing through their lifespan.
Esther Hawn is an occupational therapist for the South Winnipeg Hospital home team through Victoria General Hospital.