Occupational Therapy. We have all heard of it, but do we really know what it is all about? It can be confusing to know all the differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy. Mentioning it to the average person, or to your older loved one, they might think it is a therapist addressing issues involving an occupation for employment. However, an occupational therapist (OT) is a healthcare professional who works with individuals who are either recovering from an injury, or may have a chronic illness or a disability, and are having difficulty with completing everyday tasks. These everyday tasks are referred to as activities of daily living (ADL’s) which include: eating, cooking, bathing, toileting, dressing, grooming, etc. An occupational therapist’s priority is then to help individuals learn or relearn how to perform the ADL’s that are difficult to do. Physical therapists focus on things such as muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion. In contrast, the goal of the occupational therapist is to have the individuals they are working with, go on to live productive and fulfilling lives, regardless of setbacks or challenges. Over one-third of occupational therapists work with older adults specifically. (1) OT’s are unique in the healthcare field, in that they focus on what the older adult CAN do, which is so huge for mental and emotional health. All too often, older adults are told what they cannot do. “Don’t walk without your cane or walker.” “Don’t eat this or that.” “Don’t drive after dark.” The list goes on, and while the “don’ts” may be wise, it can still be disempowering for the older adult. Your older loved one wants to try and live independently as much as possible, which is completely understandable. This is where an occupational therapist can truly be a tremendous asset. There are so many facets of occupational therapy that you may not have even known about.

5 Ways Occupational Therapists can Help:

1.) Rehabilitation to Assist with Activities of Daily Living

The OT will first do a thorough evaluation to see the areas that may be a struggle for your loved one. Then they will develop a plan and begin to work with your loved one in those specific areas. For example, if mobility is an issue, the OT can help with instructing your loved one on how to safely transfer to and from the toilet or entering and exiting the shower. They can also show how to move properly when performing other various daily functions. If dexterity is an issue, the OT can help work with your loved one on how to fasten or button clothing and put on shoes; applying or removing devices such as splints or prosthetic devices. The OT can also work with your loved one on more complex activities like, cooking, writing or cleaning.

2.) In-Home Safety Assessments

An OT will come into the home and do an in-depth evaluation of what safety modifications are needed. For example, they might recommend some of the following things: grab bars or additional grab bars, bathtub transfer bench, shower chair, elevated toilet seats, safety strips, different knobs, additional hand rails, bed rails, ramps, etc. After conducting the assessment, they will connect family members to organizations and companies who can assist with the suggested modifications.

3.) Techniques to Manage and Reduce Rate of Memory Loss

OT’s are experienced with assessing individuals cognitive function. Even though they cannot fix a person’s dementia, they can help to improve function through a variety of ways. For example, in earlier stages of memory loss, OT’s can help set up memory aids like calendars or journals. Then they will also educate the caregivers on how to handle these beginning changes. Once individuals progress to the middle stage of dementia, they may begin to need more help with basic self-care tasks. The OT’s will start to help with retraining some of the ADL’s with the person. Some ways they do that, is through increased verbal or visual cues, along with demonstration of the activity. It is critical to still work with the older adult on some of these things. Otherwise, if it is just done for them, they will lose those automatic skills all together. Individuals in the later stages of dementia will no longer be able to perform self-care tasks, and the OT will shift to educating the caregiver on how to care for their loved one. For instance, they might teach them how to do a safe transfer or sensory stimulation. (2)

4.) Navigating Vision Loss

The OT will first analyze and determine which activities are the most challenging to accomplish with the individuals’ vision loss. Then the OT will modify those tasks and/or environment to minimize those limitations. For instance, they might recommend how to restructure the kitchen to increase accessibility, or add lighting and contrast to different areas of the house. OT’s are also very knowledgeable about different adaptive devices and assistive technologies too, which can also prove to be very helpful in completing tasks. They might work with them to plan and utilize memory and insight. (3)

5.) Educating and Supporting Caregivers

When changes occur with your loved one, OT’s can be crucial with helping caregivers and families better understand the needs and most importantly lighten the load of care. They can be one of your greatest allies and help create a plan that meets your needs as well as your loved one’s needs.

Following an injury, or dealing with a debilitating chronic illness, it can be absolutely devastating when your loved one can no longer do some of these tasks you or I take for granted. However, bringing in an occupational therapist can have such a positive impact on their emotional and mental health. With the OT’s assistance, their limitations do not have to be as limiting as initially thought. They can still lead meaningful and productive lives. Now this is not to say that it won’t still be challenging and things will not return to how they used to be, but if they keep trying, there are always improvements to be had. Just keep encouraging them along the way and reminding them of their progress, as it can be easy to lose sight of those things. Then celebrate even the smallest of victories! If you think that your elderly loved one could benefit from occupational therapy, discuss it with their primary care doctor. Under certain circumstances a referral is necessary. Otherwise, Denver Senior Care consultants will gladly help with connecting you to some additional resources.


(1) https://ecaring.com/how-occupational-therapists-help-seniors-get-things-done/

(2) https://www.myotspot.com/occupational-therapy-interventions-for-dementia/

(3) https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Professionals/PA/Facts/low-vision.as px

Additional Reference: https://www.seniorliving.org/health/occupational-therapy/