As people get older, their physical and mental capabilities may start to decline. Daily activities that once came easy can now be challenging for them to complete due to a slowing of their physical or cognitive ability. An occupational therapist, typically referred to as an OT, is a medical professional trained to help people of all ages stay healthy by preventing or learning how to live with an injury or disability.
An occupational therapist (OT) helps older adults keep a healthy lifestyle by teaching them how to prevent and avoid injuries, function in their daily lives with a disability, and maintain a safe home.
However, there are many more ways in which an OT can help the elderly maintain a healthy lifestyle. In the remainder of this article, we’ll break down every way OTs can benefit an older adult’s physical and mental health.
What is an Occupational Therapist?
An occupational therapist, or OT, works with injured, disabled, or sick people who can’t complete everyday tasks. They teach children and adults how to get their important things done when they are in pain or have limited mobility.
To help their patients, an OT will assess their needs and observe them as they go about their daily activities. The OT will then develop a plan to help patients complete tasks that have been limited by pain, reduced mobility, or cognitive decline. Learn more about Understanding OT and Why and when do we need an OT
OTs Help Patients Achieve Goals
An OT sets goals and trains patients to modify their movements and improve coordination. Goals may cover multiple tasks such as buttoning up a shirt, brushing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning. Other goals can be related to improving:
- How a person transfers (getting out of bed, stand up from a chair)
- Memory and attention
- Planning their day
As a patient moves through their treatment plan, the OT can modify or change their exercises. When they meet their goals, an OT may propose new ones to expand their patient’s mobility and motor skills.
Changing up the routine and setting toward new goals is beneficial for a patient’s physical health, but they can also become confident and less fearful as they reach their goals; this positively affects a person’s mental well-being.
Caregivers vs. OTs and Older Adults
An estimated 8.8 million UK adults care for someone else, typically an older adult. That translates to roughly one out of every six adults in the UK providing care. Of this group, 2.2 million caregivers are over the age of 65. To break this down even further, an estimated 400,000 adults over 80 years old care for another adult, typically spouses.
These unpaid caregivers may be taking care of an older family member, friend, or neighbour with physical, mental, or memory challenges. Additionally, most caregivers are untrained and do not have adequate support systems. As such, they may not recognize conditions that could be impacting the health and well-being of the person they are caring for.
Caregivers and Older Adults
Caregivers in the UK are seven times more likely to experience loneliness when caring for someone else. They are also often under stress and may be unable to cope appropriately with their situation; this can impact an older adult’s physical and mental health, especially if the caregiver takes on the patient’s tasks. This is where an OT can come in.
An OT can serve as support for the caregiver by encouraging them to stay healthy and on-top of conditions or illnesses that could impact the person they care for. Additionally, an OT can work with a caregiver to develop exercise and rehabilitation plans for an older adult to reinforce at home.
How Can an OT Help Older Adults Keep a Healthy Lifestyle?
From physical to cognitive treatment plans and suggestions, an OT can help older adults pursue healthier habits to ensure they can continue to live a healthy lifestyle.
OTs Help Older Adults with Physical Health
As a person gets older, they can find it challenging to move around as quickly as they once could. Simple tasks like washing dishes, folding laundry, or walking up and down stairs may be more difficult with age.
When a person no longer actively participates in their daily routine, they can become frustrated or depressed. As their natural abilities decline, they may be embarrassed or ashamed to do anything physical. Older adults may just give up and refrain from participating in activities, such as walking, exercising, or completing basic household tasks.
This lack of movement can negatively impact an older person’s physical health and well-being. It can also affect their overall attitude and outlook on life.
To help older adults gain confidence and move around physically, an OT can do the following:
- An OT can design an exercise plan to strengthen their muscles and achieve a broader range of motion. This plan is targeted and tailored to the individual’s physical needs.
- Also, an OT helps older adults stay engaged in their lives by teaching them how to handle basic physical tasks, such as walking, brushing their teeth, and cooking.
Helping older adults focus their attention on physically moving about helps to promote a healthy lifestyle. Plus, it helps elderly patients remain engaged and approach their daily routines and tasks with greater confidence. Additionally, aging adults stay healthy when they eventually can move about own their own and care for themselves.
OTs Prevent Injury from Falls
According to the National Health Service (NHS), one out of every three adults aged 65 years or older falls every year. A fall can result in a severe injury to an older adult, such as head trauma or broken bones. Further, falls in the UK are the common cause of death in adults who are over 75 years old.
When an older person falls, they may find themselves unable to move. In some cases, they may be confined to their bed. It may be a long time before an older adult can recover from their injury. And, without regular physical movement, their health can decline. Plus, it may require weeks or months of painful physical rehabilitation before they are healed to the point where they can start moving around again.
As you would expect, a fall also takes a toll on a person’s mental health. Patients can become frustrated or depressed if they are unable to move or care for themselves. In some cases, an older individual may be afraid of falling and severely limit their movements. They may also withdraw from everyday activities that they once found enjoyable.
An OT helps elderly adults avoid falls by doing the following:
- OTs provide exercises to strengthen the lower body’s muscles; this helps promote better balance, which will keep older individuals from falling.
- Plus, an OT can observe other factors that may pose a danger for a fall. They may scan and remove items in the home, such as debris or other items lying in the walkway of a room, hall, or stairwell, that may cause an older adult to trip and fall.
- An OT may also suggest removing a slippery floor mat or tightening handrails to prevent a person from losing their footing or balance.
- Suppose carpeting or flooring has a monotonous colour scheme that makes it hard to distinguish different elevations. In that case, an OT may suggest using brighter lights or tape to help prevent falls. The use of colours can be especially helpful for older adults experiencing problems with their vision.
Between exercise programs and studying the surroundings that an individual lives in, an OT can implement a plan to prevent falls. Ultimately, this helps older adults stay physically and mentally healthy.
OTs Help Older Adults Manage Chronic Diseases
Chronic disease becomes more prevalent as we get older. Defined as a condition that lasts more than a year, chronic disease may include cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
Older adults with chronic disease may reduce their physical activity because of their illness; this may result from the actual physical ailment or the fear that an older person may have if they overexert themselves. Either way, this lack of physical activity directly impacts the quality of their health.
In other cases, an older adult may be unable to maintain a healthy diet, which is critical for certain chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. If an older adult cannot purchase nutritious food or cook meals that follow a prescribed diet, they may choose less healthy options that are easier to get.
A poor diet can also impact physical health if they eat food that aggravates their chronic disease, such as excessive sugar or salt. If an older person cannot maintain a healthy diet, it may make their illness worse, thus impacting their overall health.
An OT can help an older adult manage their chronic disease in many ways:
- By learning what restrictions, a patient truly has due to their chronic illness, an OT can design an exercise or rehabilitation program to accommodate them. A targeted program helps to keep an older person active and healthy.
- An OT can also create a dietary plan that will avoid aggravating certain conditions and possibly reduce symptoms. For example, an OT may recommend a series of healthy recipes that are easy to read and require very few ingredients to make.
By promoting exercise and making sound choices around their diet, an OT helps keep older adults healthy by teaching them how to live with their chronic disease.
Managing Diabetes in Older Adults
Diabetes is a severe health issue that can be managed with exercise, healthy eating habits, and monitoring symptoms. An OT helps an older adult who struggles with diabetes to stay healthy by:
- Teaching them healthy ways to prepare food and manage their food intake
- Choosing the right ingredients to support a healthy diet
- Review any barriers that may prevent the patient from purchasing healthy food for their diet. For example, the OT may suggest that a friend or family member accompany the older adult when going to the shops. Not only can they help to ensure they pick the healthy ingredients, but the family member or friend can also read product labels.
- Propose an appropriate exercise and activity program
- Teach the patient to monitor the integrity of their skin and take their blood sugar readings
Managing Arthritis in Older Adults
Arthritis can be a debilitating disease that makes physical movement painful. Tasks such as standing up, walking, and gripping or grasping small items may become so difficult for older adults to manage, they may choose to limit their mobility altogether. This loss of mobility directly impacts the quality of an older adult’s health and lifestyle.
An OT can help patients suffering from arthritis through a variety of intervention strategies, such as:
- Using heat or cold to manage arthritic pain, which helps patients continue with daily tasks
- Encouraging the use of compression garments, elevating limbs, and promoting exercise to control swelling and inflammation in the legs, feet, and hands that can make it challenging to move around
- Propose exercises to increase a patient’s range of motion, improve their fine motor skills, and strengthen their muscles. The easier it is for an older individual to walk, bend, and grab, the more likely they will continue with physical activity.
- Suggesting the use of assistive devices, such as braces, which can enhance patient functionality: This can be seen in aging adults who struggle to use their hands or fingers to pick items up from a table or grasp a doorknob.
- Teaching proper relaxation techniques to keep older adults from becoming overtired
- Assessing how an older adult manages their daily activities, including where and how they sit and stand: This helps the OT determine if there are more ergonomic solutions to reduce pain and help them move around.
Managing Chronic Pain in Older Adults
Chronic pain poses many difficulties for older adults. Stress and frustration are common responses as elderly patients may not find medication to alleviate the problem.
Since chronic pain is challenging to detect and diagnose, it is typically identified only when the patient says it exists. Thus, patients who suffer from it may be met with suspicion from those who don’t believe them. They may be embarrassed or feel that no one believes that they are in pain. To alleviate this issue, an OT may take the approach of building trust with an older adult who suffers from chronic pain.
They can help patients deal with chronic pain by identifying how it affects their lives. From there, they can design exercises or activities to help older patients learn how to deal with the problem. As patients can better manage their symptoms, they may be more willing to move around and participate in activities they enjoy.
- Learning how to redirect pain using relaxation techniques, such as meditation or gentle stretches and exercises
- Improving strength and stamina through exercise
- Helping older patients modify their attitude about pain: An OT takes a comprehensive approach to help older adults deal with chronic pain by understanding that their beliefs and attitudes about pain can influence how well they can deal with it.
For older patients dealing with chronic pain, an OT can provide viable solutions to teach them how to deal with problems and become more confident in their ability to move about.
OTs Help Older Adults with Cognitive Decline
Older adults may become forgetful and experience bouts of memory loss. In other cases, they may struggle to organize their day or manage activities, such as getting dressed, paying bills, taking medication, or driving.
The following are ways an OT can help older adults manage and combat cognitive decline:
- An OT can develop a series of activities to help improve the mental ability of an elderly patient; this may include memory and attention exercise.
- An OT may also help a patient organize their daily activities, such as limiting the variety of clothing in their wardrobe or placing signs on doors of patients who may get confused and wander outside.
OTs Help Older Adults Manage Dementia
Approximately 850,000 adults in the UK have dementia; by 2040, that number is expected to reach 1.6 million people. Dementia represents an impaired ability to think, reason, and remember, impacting a person’s proficiency to complete ordinary tasks throughout the day.
For patients who have dementia, an OT can help in a variety of ways, including:
- Implementing the use of calendars and schedules to remind elderly patients of their daily tasks such as taking medication, cooking meals, or bathing
- Retraining elderly patients to complete basic self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth or hair
- Seeking proper equipment to ensure comfort and safety, such as stairlifts or wheelchairs
Elderly patients with dementia should be encouraged to complete as many tasks as possible on their own to keep them active and promote good physical health. Plus, completing routine tasks helps to strengthen their cognitive abilities.
OTs Help Older Adults Improve Their Mental Health
If a person’s physical and cognitive ability declines as they get older, it can impact their mental well-being. Fortunately, OTs can also help in this area:
- An OT can help an older adult maintain a healthy lifestyle by finding ways to keep them active and confident with their abilities. Whether these are physical activities or cognitive puzzles, an older patient’s health can be positively affected when they remain engaged in their daily routine.
- A patient’s outlook on life is essential, especially as their abilities decline. They may become depressed or question how the rest of their lives will be if they can’t live life like they used to. An OT can help patients continue to do the necessary chores and household activities that they enjoyed.
- If an older adult cannot participate in an activity to the extent that they were used to, an OT may find alternative ways to keep them busy. For example, a patient who enjoyed filling out crossword puzzles may find them frustrating if the type is too small or if they can’t grip the pen.
- An OT may find crossword puzzles with a larger font or suggest using a wider pen that can be easily held. The OT may also recommend playing these games on a computer to see the puzzle better.
OTs Help Older Adults with Vision Loss
As people age, their vision may become impaired. Problems with vision can impact on the ability to perform physical tasks. This inability can lead to becoming frustrated or low in mood, which may impact their mental health, too.
An OT may be able to improve a patient’s ability to see patterns and improve their perceptual vision. The use of colour-coding objects, such as food or household products, can help people with these issues.
Vision can also be improved by the OT implementing the use of signs or labels with large print and magnifying glasses in easy-to-find locations. When older adults can find what they are looking for, it helps to keep them active; this improves both an older adult’s physical and mental health.
How Can OTs Make an Older Adult’s Home Safer?
When people get older, their ability to move around may be impaired. This puts them at risk of getting hurt if they fall. Broken bones or sprains may significantly impact an older adult’s ability to move around, damaging their overall health. Plus, it can affect their mental health and well-being if they become so frustrated with limited mobility that they choose to do nothing at all.
While an OT may treat physical limitations with specific exercises and rehabilitation techniques, they will also consider other measures around the home to make it safer.
When assessing an older adult’s needs in their home, an OT may look at special equipment that may help them remain independent. Such equipment may include:
- Bath seats or walk-in showers
- Handrails in bathrooms or other rooms where extra stability may be needed
- Slip-resistant flooring
- Alarm or medical alert systems
Brighter lighting used throughout the home can make it easier for older adults to see as they walk down hallways or up and downstairs.
Use of Colours
A variety of colours can tag items to make them stand out. For example, prescription medication bottles have small writing and can look virtually the same. An older adult may have difficulty reading the label to make sure they are taking the correct medication at the right dosage.
By color-coding the bottles, it’s easier for an older individual to pick out the medicine they need to take and prevents them from taking the wrong medication or dosage.
Painting light switches and outlets a darker colour than the rest of the wall helps make them stand out. The contrast in colours makes it easier for older adults to find them.
Removing Obstacles and Debris
If an older adult is not strong enough to put objects away, they may place these on the floor. If they trip and fall, they could get hurt. An OT may help to remove obstacles that could lead to their patient falling.
An OT may suggest removing slippery floor mats. They may also recommend using bins to place shoes in, keeping them from lying around the floor. Not only does this help to prevent a trip and fall accident, but it can help an older patient remember where their shoes are.
When a patient’s surroundings are safer, it can impact their health by keeping them from getting hurt. It also encourages them to move about with their daily activities, which promotes good mental health.
How Can OTs Help Older Adults with moving from their family home to residential care?
The home transitions that older adults face can impact their health. If an aging adult cannot care for themselves as they once could, they may become depressed and frustrated. The caregiver in their life, who is there to help, may not always be a welcome sight to a person who is used to doing everything independently.
In other cases, an older person may move to a residential or nursing home. They may be leaving behind the family home that they have lived in for years. They may have lost the spouse that took care of them or leave cherished friends behind.
Like with any health condition, transitions that older adults go through can take a toll on their physical and mental health.
An OT is a valuable resource that can help older adults learn how to deal with these tough transitions. By keeping adults active and engaged in daily activities, they help the elderly gain confidence and build routines in their lives that they can rely on.
An occupational therapist helps older adults stay healthy by teaching them positive life skills that improve their strength and stamina. By taking active steps to prevent falls and other injuries, an OT also helps keep older adults physically and mentally healthy.
Additionally, an OT assesses their patients’ needs and develops targeted activities and exercises to overcome mobility and vision problems. Finally, an OT can teach older adults how to manage their illnesses and disabilities to lead productive and fulfilling lives.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this Blog article are not intended to amount to advice, and you should not rely on any of the contents of this Blog article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this Blog article. OccupationaltherapyBlog disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this Blog article.