Helping people do what matters to them

Imagine you are a person with diabetes whose arthritis is interfering with giving yourself insulin injections. Or maybe you’re the parent of a child with a disability, and you want to make sure they can participate in the classroom. Or maybe you’ve been injured and want to figure out how you can modify your job so you can get back to work. Occupational therapists can help with all of these situations, and more.

Occupational therapists (OTs), along with occupational therapy assistants (OTAs), help people across the lifespan (from birth to death, neonatal intensive care unit to hospice) adapt to their environment and successfully participate in their activities of daily living, called “occupations.” OTs must have a masters-level degree to begin practice and must pass a certification exam.

Debra Young, a veteran OT who is a certified specialist and a director of the American Occupational Therapy Association, says, “Occupational therapy is very person-centered. The goal is to individualize therapy to the life roles of the person and their habits and day-to-day routines.”

She adds, “We look at how people are doing all the activities they do throughout their day, including very basic things — dressing, bathing, eating and drinking — but also their roles: going to school or work, taking care of kids, being able to manage their job. If someone has an illness, injury or disability, what is impacting their ability to participate in their day-to-day life? We help them set up roles, habits and routines to assist in those basic activities.”

This can include anything from teaching a person who has had a stroke to learn to safely prepare a meal one-handed, to assisting someone with memory loss in setting up a system to help them remember to take their daily medication, to helping a child improve fine motor skills so they can hold a pencil and write. The possible interventions are as individual as the patients themselves.

OTs work with many types of patients in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, long-term care and nursing facilities, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, schools, workplaces, home health and more. They help persons with illness, injury and/or disability recover or best adapt to their condition, assist patients with mental and behavioral health issues and also work with healthy people, through preventive interventions such as setting up safe, ergonomic workplaces and consulting on home modifications to help older people age more easily in their homes. “In the end, we are a health and wellness profession,” says Young.

When a patient is referred to occupational therapy by a doctor or other professional, the OT conducts an individualized evaluation and creates an “occupational profile,” working with the client and family to identify goals and determine the best treatment plan. Next, the therapist will come up with customized interventions, such as adaptive equipment or modifying the environment, to help the client reach their goals. And finally, an outcomes evaluation assesses whether the plan is working well or whether adjustments need to be made.                                                   

“OT is very person-centered. The goal is to individualize therapy to the life roles of the person and their habits and day-to-day routines.”

Young sees occupational therapy as an expanding field. “We work in so many environments, and that is only going to grow as we add more emerging practice areas to meet changing societal needs in health care. As an OT for over 22 years, I have worked in many different settings with many different populations. What I learned through all of those experiences is that I love looking at how the environment impacts people’s ability to do the things they need and want to do, the meaningful activities we call ‘occupations.’ Most people want to live an active life, and that’s what our profession was founded on — getting people back to doing the things they love to do.”