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Motivated to move: How physical therapy helped a bedridden patient reclaim life

For October’s National Physical Therapy Month, we recognize the caring, dedicated therapists of HopeHealth Visiting Nurse.

Barbara Schwartz of Smithfield, RI, is a go-getter with places to go and things to do.

The 89-year-old is close to her husband of 67 years and three children. She reads a lot, socializes with friends in her retirement community, and attends synagogue as part of her strong faith.

When someone wishes Barbara a good day, she replies, “Oh, I’ll make it a good day!”

This year, though, most days have been tough. After a health crisis with her esophagus, Barbara lost 65 pounds and was so weak she could barely leave bed.

She’s getting back on track with the help of Ellen Gardner, DPT, a physical therapist with HopeHealth Visiting Nurse.

“Ellen’s my mentor,” Barbara says. “She motivated me to get stronger every day. We became good friends and I think the world of her.”

“It’s not just about the diagnosis or medicine, it’s about tapping into what makes a person a person—what’s their story?”

Practicing physical therapy in home care

Elderly woman sitting in chair doing physical therapy exercises as a younger physical therapist is bending down to guide her through the exercises

Physical therapists are experts in movement. In home care, they help patients who are recovering from surgery or living with a chronic illness that impairs mobility.

Contrary to the old adage, the main focus of physical therapy is not “no pain, no gain.” As Ellen explains, “Therapy is about living your life. You don’t need to stop living, you just need to do things in different ways. We’re trying to teach you how to heal and move forward.”

Ellen worked in a trauma hospital for many years before coming to HopeHealth. She prefers the personal setting of home care because she can get to know her patients.

“It’s not just about the diagnosis or medicine, it’s about tapping into what makes a person a person—what’s their story?” says Ellen. She believes seeing patients in their natural habitat results in better care.

For example, an outpatient therapist could send someone home with a walker that doesn’t fit easily through doorways in an apartment. In this case, a home care therapist would flip the wheels to the inside, which makes the aid safer and more useful.

“When you’re at a person’s house, you can really customize the plan to meet their needs. It’s much less of a one size fits all,” Ellen says.

Ellen empowers her patients to take ownership of their recovery.

When “why” means more than “what”

Elderly woman pushing a walker while a young female physical therapist guides her through the hallway

Physical therapy can be hard, and not everyone will commit just because an expert says it’s good for them.

Therapists empower patients to take ownership of their recovery, set meaningful goals and understand not only what they need to do but also the reasons for doing it.

By taking time to listen, Ellen learns what her patients care about. “I might say, ‘If you do this exercise, you can see your granddaughter’s softball game.’ Then they connect the dots,” she says.

Direct yet compassionate guidance can also be motivating. Ellen learned one of her patients stopped meeting her friends for lunch because she was embarrassed to be seen in public with a walker.

“I said, ‘Would you rather sit home and feel alone, or be with people who enjoy your company and help you feel young again? Let’s practice getting in and out of the car with the walker until you feel confident doing it,’” Ellen recalls.

“We care for the whole person.”

The evolving job of physical therapist

The role of physical therapist in health care has expanded since 2013 when the American Physical Therapy Association updated its vision. Today new practitioners must have a doctorate degree to practice physical therapy, a sign of their broader medical expertise.

“We care for the whole person,” Ellen says.

Elderly female hand holding hand of young caregiver at nursing home.Geriatric doctor or geriatrician concept. Doctor physician hand on happy elderly senior patient to comfort in hospital examination

Barbara agrees: “Ellen is very knowledgeable and explains everything to me. I like that.”

For example, physical therapists conduct many first-visit assessments (called admission visits) for home care patients with joint replacements. In the past, that was exclusively the role of a nurse.

Home care therapists also keep watch for any mobility-impairing side effects of medication and call a visiting nurse if they spot a red flag. “Even though we’re working independently, we’re not alone,” Ellen says.

Slowly but surely, Ellen has helped Barbara build up her strength and balance to resume doing the things she loves to do. Once bedridden, today Barbara is back visiting friends and picking up rides to synagogue.

“It feels great when you’ve really helped to hopefully make a difference in somebody’s life,” Ellen says.

Questions about physical therapy? Contact us today at (800) 696-7991 or

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