Occupational therapists help people move

Many people are aware of the benefits of physical therapy, in part because it’s so widely used to help patients recover from a variety of injuries and many surgeries, including knee and hip replacements which are both very common in our aging population. But there is another type of rehabilitation therapy that has been around for almost 100 years and it’s widely used to help individuals regain and maintain their independence.

“Occupational therapy began in the early years of World War I,” said Gloria Thatch-Woody, a registered occupational therapist at Southwest Memorial Hospital. “Back then they were called reconstructive aides and helped servicemen recover using craft activities to help get their injured parts moving again,” said Gloria.

April is National Occupational Therapy month. Practitioners of this type of rehabilitation — commonly referred to as OTs — are educated and trained for at least four years. Many hold master’s and doctoral degrees. OT assistants hold associate degrees.

“We provide customized treatment programs to improve the ability of individuals to conduct their daily living activities,” Gloria said. “The ultimate goal is to maximize independence. That’s the bottom line for everything we do.”

Occupational therapists were instrumental in moving the Americans with Disability Act forward back in 1990. The profession is practiced worldwide.

In her role as an OT, Gloria works with patients who have suffered work-related and sports-related injuries.

“We help people who have had injuries like fractures or sprains of the hand or arm, and we also see patients who have carpal tunnel syndrome from working on the computer for long periods,” she said.

Older people who suffer significant falls often are prescribed OT by their doctors.

“They get up to go to the bathroom at night and become disoriented and fall,” she said.

One service that Gloria can provide outside the hospital are in-home evaluations designed to help prevent accidents such as this, and also to show people how to adapt their environment to ensure that they maintain their independence.

“People are happier in their familiar environment,” she said. “We can teach them how to use a walker in the home, using a basket on the front of it so they can cook their breakfast, put the food in the basket, and roll it to the table or sofa to eat.”

Occupational therapy also can help someone who has been in an accident, is recovering from major surgery, has severe arthritis, or who has had a stroke or other neurologic event that has diminished ability to regain the skills to feed themselves, get dressed without assistance, and attend to personal hygiene.

“Just imagine having to wait for someone to come feed or dress you. The goal is always the same: function and independence to live life to its fullest,” Gloria said.

With patients who are recovering from strokes, part of the goal of occupational therapy is to encourage the brain to heal.

“Stroke patients sometimes can’t see out of one eye, but the eye is fine. It’s the brain that doesn’t work correctly,” Gloria said.

Exercises that retrain the brain can help them regain their ability to use both eyes.

Macular degeneration is another common vision problem in the elderly, and occupational therapists assist patients in figuring out what aids they need to remain as independent as possible, even with very limited eyesight.

“We use table magnifiers and larger items and bright colors to help them compensate,” Gloria said.

Occupational therapy is used with individuals who have mental health and behavioral issues. Patients who suffer from schizophrenia, manic depression and Alzheimer’s disease are offered exercises designed to help them focus on a single activity.

“Sometimes it’s something as simple as a coloring book or a puzzle. We have them do activities with another person if they tend to be isolated in their own minds,” Gloria said, adding that patients who have post-traumatic stress benefit from learning to think about something other than their own fear.

Gloria recommends many types of adaptive devices when needed. In addition to helping individuals choose the right type and size wheelchair or scooter, she often suggests simple devices that make a big difference such as a curved spoon and a bowl that’s specially designed to help people with limited upper body ability feed themselves. A long arm gripper is another commonly used device.

“I use one myself to reach items on high shelves in the kitchen at my home,” said Gloria, who added that many of the devices in use today were designed by people with disabilities.

Occupational therapy is a rapidly growing field and a rewarding one, too.

“I’ve been an OT for 32 years, and what nourishes me is never on my paycheck,” Gloria said. “It’s the relationship I’m permitted to have with the people I work with. Seeing them get better when many of them didn’t have any hope and were afraid of being totally dependent on other people — that’s what drives me.”

Occupational therapy requires a doctor’s order, and is covered by most insurance plans and by Medicare for a certain number of treatments. Gloria will be at the 9 Health Fair in Cortez on Saturday, April 21, and community members are invited to stop by her booth with questions.

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal health care provider.

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