Occupational therapy: Helping patients regain independence


OT involves reacquainting a patient with simple daily tasks like clipping and unclipping a clothes pin. — Perdana University

Occupational therapy (OT) is the only profession that helps people do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations) across their entire lifespan.

OT practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to their fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent or live better with injury, illness or disability.

While still foreign to many, OT is becoming increasingly in demand with the manifold benefits it provides, especially in the era of Covid-19.

Occupational therapists usually care for injured or disabled people by providing aid and support for them to improve and maintain skills needed in their everyday life.

This could include cases as extreme as patients who experience neurological issues or are paralysed due to accidents.

The main goal of seeking OT is to maximise the capacity of the person in performing common day-to-day activities.

OT vs physiotherapy

Now, a common question might pop up at this point: Why seek an occupational therapist instead of a physiotherapist?

Well, a physiotherapist usually supports patients by providing assistance in improving body mobility, while an occupational therapist is focused on improving a patient’s ability in performing daily tasks.

The two may seem similar, but they are certainly not.

Physiotherapists are usually misunderstood, in that we expect them to be able to help with anything when it comes to mobility.

While that is true to a certain extent, occupational therapists are the key players when it comes to helping patients gain independence in multiple areas in life.

Occupational therapists do not just provide physical support, but also mental, emotional and social support.

They help patients navigate and familiarise themselves with tasks that every human being is expected to master, e.g. feeding one’s self, buttoning up one’s shirt or opening a door, just to name a few.

Occupational therapists help in many different aspects of life, but the most notable one is their ability to improve a patient’s functional independence.

This is especially relevant for those with special needs, i.e. children and adults with Down’s Syndrome, autism and the like.

These individuals can benefit significantly from OT as they would be able to learn to perform routine daily tasks, especially in emergency cases where their guardians may not be available to tend to them.

As the saying goes, it is better to teach a man to fish than to hand him a fish.

These skills would serve the patient well in the long run.

There are also cases where an older person’s quality of life could be substantially improved by consulting an occupational therapist.

Simple tasks such as bathing, getting dressed, and even eating, may become difficult for the elderly if they are affected by certain medical conditions that are more prone to develop with age.

This is where an occupational therapist can step in, to help them relearn tasks that they may have forgotten how to do (e.g. in dementia) or adapt tasks that they can no longer perform (e.g. after a stroke).

Regaining their independence, even a little, would benefit most elderly patients, as they would be more confident in carrying out daily tasks and would not need to rely on external support in the form of intense home care and monitoring.

Of course, this would lead to a less stressful life for both patients and their families and caregivers.

It could also be potentially lifesaving, for instance, in the event of a slip or fall.

Working with families

Occupational therapists are called “therapists” for a reason.

They are not only the teaching figures in their relationships with patients, but also provide an immense amount of support and care.

In most instances, occupational therapists provide home safety assessments.

This is where they make house calls to inspect the overall safety and enabling of the patient’s home, with a specific focus on the patient’s illness or disability.

For example, they would observe furniture placement and recommend any changes necessary to best cater to the patient.

They may also recommend adaptive equipment if deemed necessary, based on the home layout.

The role of an occupational therapist goes beyond just forming a relationship with the patient; they also work closely with the patient’s family and caregivers.

They play a role in helping family members and caregivers understand the patient’s condition better and provide caregiver training to better manage patients.

This training includes keeping them informed of the changes the patient is going through and helping them understand the patient’s behavioural patterns.

All aspects of the patient’s emotions, physicalities and physiology would be broken down to help the caregiver gain a full grasp of the situation.

This would result in better understanding of the patient among family members and caregivers, leading to a more conducive home environment.

All in all, occupational therapists are vital not only in the lives of those in need of OT, but also those surrounding them.

Professor Nathan Vytialingam is the dean of Perdana University’s School of Occupational Therapy and Randeep Singh Sidhu is the university’s corporate communication, marketing and business development manager. This article is courtesy of Perdana University, which is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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