By Michelle Brooks
When someone returns home from a hospital stay or when they experience a health event that limits their abilities, problem-solvers like occupational therapists can help.
Elderly today are living longer and with more chronic conditions than previous generations. But they are able to stay in their own homes longer with a variety or resources.
April is National Occupational Therapists Month. The career spans cradle to grave issues.
Most people won't meet such a professional unless referred by a doctor.
But what they have to offer is usually a relief and benefit to the patient and their caregiver.
For the elderly, the top two concerns that could remove them from their home are falls and mismanaged medications.
Occupational therapists like Heather Turner, Lynne White and Julie Reinkemeyer prefer to meet with patients in their home environment to help alleviate potential hazards.
"Adaptations to the home will help them say at home as long as they can," White said.
Patients with severe arthritis in their hands might need special aids or containers to help them access their medicines.
Patients with COPD might need new breathing techniques and guidance on routine practices not to exacerbate their condition.
"Our goal is to help them remain independent and safe," Reinkemeyer said.
Many of the simplest safety solutions are "normal" for the therapists but may have not occurred to the patient or family.
Removing throw rugs or adding an access bench to the bath tub are frequent helps.
"Sometimes one piece of equipment can save so many injuries," said Turner, director of Capital Region Medical Center Home Health.
Many of their patients are in rural settings.
Old farmhouses, in particular, pose challenges with uneven floors, narrow doorways and petite bathrooms.
"We're aware for many, this is their family home," Turner said. "We are respectful of that in our recommendations."
Once safety is addressed, occupational therapists also help patients to meet personal goals and continue meaningful life activities.
For some patients, that means being able to send e-mails, to feed their dog, to pick up their mail or to do their laundry.
Each patient is different.
"We customize our plan of care with what's important to them," Turner said.
Reduction is Medicaid coverage for specialty equipment, along with the slowed economy, has also demanded that occupational therapists come up with alternative adaptations and keep abreast of community resources.
"We're sort of problem-solvers; sometimes we have to be pretty creative," Reinkemeyer said.
Instruction and support does not stop with the patient. Occupational therapists in home health more often than not also work with caretakers.
Two key points for caretakers are following smart body mechanics and taking care of themselves, too.
"If something happens to the caregiver, the patient is out," White said.
Often occupational therapists' greatest support for caregivers is for morale - validating they are doing their best and giving them permission to relinquish some tasks.
They are also teachers, explaining diagnosis and resulting symptoms to the patients. Sometimes they can provide insight to other professionals and healthcare providers, too.
"We can offer peace of mind," White said.