How can occupational therapy help you?

Created date

March 21st, 2019
A man meets with a woman who is an occupational therapist. They sit at a table with colorful objects spread out between them.

Occupational therapists don’t just work with physical problems, they also help with issues stemming from emotional stress, such as illness and disability.

“As occupational therapists, we often hear our older clients say they are retired, so they don’t need our services,” says Carol Stoolmiller, O.T.R./L., C.O.S.-C., corporate director of rehabilitation operations for Erickson Living.

But the “occupation” in occupational therapy does not necessarily refer to how or where you’ve made a living. “An occupation is any goal-directed, purposeful activity that is meaningful to someone,” Stoolmiller says. “That can certainly include workplace activities, but it can encompass practically anything, from getting ready for your day in the morning to practicing a hobby.”

An occupational therapist’s role

“Occupational therapy has a very broad scope, and therapists receive extensive education,” says Noralyn Pickens, Ph.D., O.T., director and professor of occupational therapy for Texas Woman’s University in Dallas. “When we work with older adults, a large part of our role tends to be how we can teach ways to overcome or compensate for barriers to daily functioning.”

You might need to learn how to lift items without straining yourself or how to get out of a chair more easily. An occupational therapist (OT) will likely have a suggestion for practically any physical problem that interferes with your activities.

While OTs work with physical problems, they also help with issues that may stem from emotional stress, such as dealing with illness and disability. They know how to find resources such as support groups or ways to cope with a chronic disease by helping you manage your treatments or medications.

OTs also work with your physical space. “We assess if your environment, whether that’s your home, somewhere you volunteer, or anywhere else you spend time, makes it easier or harder to accomplish your goals,” Stoolmiller says. “We may recommend installing adaptive equipment or suggest ways you might rearrange your cabinets to reach items easier.”

Home safety is a number one concern, and an OT can identify hazards that could lead to a fall or other injury. “We are an objective eye and may be able to help you rearrange a room so everything is convenient for you and safe,” Stoolmiller says.

But you do not have to follow a therapist’s advice. For instance, the recommendation might be to remove a tripping hazard such as a favorite throw rug that you’ve had in the same place for years. “Our relationship with clients is a partnership,” Stoolmiller says. “It is always up to you to decide if you want to make changes to your home. Our job is to give you all the information you’ll need to make the decision that’s right for you.”

Sometimes the learning goes both ways. “Clients are often able to find their own ways to solve problems that are very creative and fit in better with their lifestyle,” Stoolmiller says.

Who can receive services?

You do not have to experience a major medical event such as a stroke to receive occupational therapy. “You must have a medical need that is due to a particular diagnosis,” Stoolmiller says. “It may be a musculoskeletal problem, such as inflexibility and mobility problems from arthritis; a lack of stamina due to chronic lung disease; or dementia-related needs.”

In some instances, you may have a need related to health promotion or prevention. “For example, you may have newly diagnosed diabetes and need assistance with aspects of disease management,” Stoolmiller says.

Or you may notice a small problem that could mushroom. “Maybe you have noticed a slight change in your balance or gait due to a particular diagnosis,” Stoolmiller says. “We should work on mobility now before it limits your ability to get around.”

Quality of life issues

The inability to do something you used to enjoy can negatively affect your enjoyment of life. An OT can help in many ways. “For instance, if you enjoy painting but have had a stroke and can no longer hold a paintbrush, we can help,” Stoolmiller explains. “If you enjoy having meals with your friends but tend to have trouble eating and drinking because of a tremor, we can help.”

OTs can help with private issues such as incontinence. “We teach a series of muscle exercises that have been successful for many women with urinary incontinence,” Stoolmiller says. “We do not want people to avoid being active or stop socializing because of bladder control problems.”

Independence is a basic need, but if you can no longer drive, your freedom can be seriously curtailed. An OT may also help you get back on the road safely (see sidebar).

Quality of life is of utmost importance if you are facing a terminal illness. OTs work with clients and their families in palliative care and hospice situations. “We may be able to find ways for a client to conserve their energy so they feel well enough to participate in something that is important to them and their family,” Stoolmiller says. “We can teach families and caregivers how to help keep a loved one comfortable.”

What is CarFit?

CarFit ( is an educational program that offers older adults the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles “fit” them.

In addition, the CarFit program provides information and materials on community-specific resources that can enhance your safety as a driver and increase your mobility in the community.