What is occupational therapy? Starting my career, I never would have imagined how often I would be mistaken as a physical therapist or be questioned from our very own colleagues at Valley Medical Center what our role entails.
I understand the confusion because the term occupation is commonly used. Occupation, as our profession espouses, is conceptualized as “the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families, or with communities that bring meaning and purpose to life. Occupations include things that people need to, want to, and are expected to do.”
Helene Polatajko, a leader in our profession, summarized that our focus is with the routine and the mundane, everyday tasks people take for granted until the ordinary becomes the extraordinary when challenged with an illness, disease or disability. To illustrate this concept, being able to dress and use the toilet are ordinary tasks, but also very meaningful, personal, and private to each person’s daily routine.
In the event of a new disability (i.e., stroke leading to paralysis of the left arm and leg) affecting a person’s independence with dressing and toilet tasks, we’re often the first clinicians to intervene while a patient is in their most vulnerable state. Often, patients express shame, regret, guilt and embarrassment. In the front lines of a patient’s battle with a new disability, we promote:
- Re-learning the mundane tasks through teaching compensatory techniques
- Repetitive practice of real-world tasks
- Cognitive questioning to promote problem solving skills
Over the short duration of my career, I received the most gratitude from my patients after they’ve regained dressing and using the bathroom again. No fancy machines used, no magic pill, but through the use of the patient’s own hands, with repetitive practice and engagement in real-world tasks, they regain the confidence and belief that there is a meaningful and purposeful life after a disability.
By Koob Moua, OTR/L, Rehabilitation Services