One recent morning, headed to a patient’s home in Attleboro, Mass., occupational therapist Cathie Miller spotted a familiar pair walking hand in hand down the sidewalk.
When she’d first met the mother and son, the child was a newborn. The mother had been referred to Cathie by a neurologist. Due to cerebral palsy, she only had the use of one hand and needed help learning to care for her infant. Cathie worked with her on everything from bathing to diaper changes.
Five years later, mom and son were on their way to the school bus. Cathie smiled.
“I always told my kids: Make someone’s day better in any way, and you’ve done your job,” she says.
As part of HopeHealth Community VNA, Cathie provides at-home occupational therapy in Massachusetts, often in coordination with home care nurses and other rehabilitation therapists. Patients in Rhode Island receive similar home care from HopeHealth Visiting Nurse.
Occupational therapists help patients overcome any number of barriers — physical, mental, social and environmental — to be able to do the daily activities that matter most to them. They’re incredibly versatile and can help in a surprising number of ways.
Here are 12 examples.
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Occupational therapists help you heal from an injury or illness.
1. Help returning to your favorite activities.
Similar to a physical therapist, an occupational therapist can suggest exercises for general strength and range of motion. They’re especially focused on the specific activities you want or need to do each day, from hobbies to household chores.
“We can turn anything into therapy,” says Cathie. “Maybe you love to garden, but you’ve had a stroke that limits your hand motion. Let’s get you outside and digging in the garden. That’s fine motor coordination for your hand, and it makes you feel better because you get a sense that you can return to what you love to do.”
2. Support for strokes, head injuries and neurological conditions.
Anything that affects your brain can impact your memory, coordination, sensory experiences, and more. Occupational therapists can create personalized exercises to help you regain your abilities and feel more confident.
“One patient had cognitive injuries, and as a result, could no longer read or write very well,” says Cathie. “It was really important to her that she could write out her checks. We worked on her printing, and with enough practice, she was able to write checks again.”
3. Pain management.
Occupational therapists can work with you on stretches and exercises, supports and splints, and even cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic pain. By managing pain, patients often become more mobile, return to activities they’d been avoiding due to pain, sleep better, and find that their mood and overall mental health improves.
4. Custom braces or splints to help you heal.
Often, patients who have a hand, elbow or shoulder injury, or who are recovering from a burn injury, need a unique brace that keeps their body in a certain position. Your occupational therapist can create it from start to finish, from drawing the pattern to molding and strapping the brace to your body.
5. Special care for burn injuries.
Burn injuries are complex. Many occupational therapists, like Cathie, are trained in techniques to help you heal faster and reduce pain and scarring.
“I recently worked with a teenage patient who had mobility limitations because of scar tissue. We did a lot of range of motion and scar compression therapy and worked on him being able to dress himself with his limitations,” says Cathie.
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Occupational therapists can help you live with a disability or chronic illness.
6. Help overcoming and adapting to physical limitations.
Occupational therapists can suggest exercises to help you build up your strength, flexibility and other physical abilities. They can also work with you on the specific movements and activities you need and want to do each day, like going up and down stairs, maneuvering in and out of the shower, and getting your dog leashed and out the door for a walk without getting tangled up.
7. Strategies for those who are hard of sight or hearing.
Many occupational therapists are trained in helping patients with low vision or low hearing to live safely at home. For patients with low vision, Cathie shares home updates that can make a big difference for safety — like putting neon tape around doorways — and teaches patients simple techniques, like how to use black construction paper as a blocking device to make reading easier.
8. Support for cognitive differences.
Some people, like those with autism or sensory processing disorders, have difficulty processing sensory information. An occupational therapist can design activities to help your brain and body work together more effectively.
This applies to all ages: When Cathie started, she worked with newborns to help them develop early motor skills. Elementary school kids might learn strategies to focus in the classroom. Adults can look to occupational therapists to coach them on skills for living independently, like cooking, dressing and managing their finances.
9. Learning to use adaptive equipment.
One of Cathie’s patients, who lives in an assisted living community, didn’t feel confident using her electric wheelchair, and was becoming more and more isolated in her room. Cathie worked with her on step-by-step training, from getting herself into the wheelchair to navigating doorways and around the community.
“She cried happy tears at our last visit, because she finally realized that she can do this — she’s not going to be stuck in her room anymore,” says Cathie.
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We can help you update your home environment and routines.
10. Suggestions for home updates.
Sometimes, we get so used to our own routines, we need someone else to point out a better way.
“For a lot of people, it’s about being able to function in their home safely. If they’re living alone, how can they cook their meals, get their mail, empty the litter box?” says Cathie. “Instead of bending over into a hot oven, use a toaster oven or microwave on top of the counter. Move the litterbox up on a stool so you don’t have to bend over to get to it.”
11. Strategies for safer routines.
Say you want to shower yourself, but you tire easily. An occupational therapist can suggest ways to work around that challenge — safely.
“Let’s add a grab bar in your shower and get you a terry cloth bathrobe so you can sit down after your shower, and rest and watch TV while you dry. Once you’ve regained your energy, then go get dressed,” says Cathie.
12. Mental, emotional and social support.
Health challenges often go hand in hand with mental, emotional and social challenges too. For instance, if you’ve been homebound for a long time with an illness or injury, it can be difficult getting back out in the world.
Occupational therapists can help you work on social strategies to feel more at ease with other people and are trained in therapy for issues such as depression, anxiety and stress management.
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Occupational therapists are here to build — and rebuild — your independence.
An occupational therapist is there to help you identify any barriers between you and your best life, and then act as your partner and coach so you can overcome them.
How that looks depends entirely on what matters to you.
“Our long-term goal is to help you function in your day-to-day as independently and safely as possible,” says Cathie. “Occupational therapy is very versatile. We adapt your life to make it work for you.”