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Can Occupational Therapy Help My Loved One with Dementia?

Posted by Katelyn Chilcote

| Occupational Therapy

Recently we have noticed a growing interest in developing non-pharmacological approaches in dementia. This includes utilizing the skilled support services of Occupational Therapy (OT) to help loved ones maintain their cognitive, behavioral and functional performance. OT’s role in dementia care is to maximize each client’s level of independence in their day-to-day activities while promoting personally meaningful activities, such as hobbies, so they can continue living safely and with dignity in whatever setting is best for them.

What can an OT do to support each stage of Dementia?

Dementia is often broken up into three stages: early, middle and late. Early stages of dementia may have more difficulty with high-level executive skills such as organizing and planning or remembering recent events. OT's teach each client individualized memory strategies to help manage short-term memory loss and establish a consistent daily routine. 

During the middle stages of dementia, a person may begin experiencing difficulty with home safety and staying engaged in personally meaningful tasks, which become the paramount focus. If a daily plan was not implemented during the early stages of the disease that will be the key component for an OT to help structure the day and provide stability for the client. Reminiscence therapy can be implemented to help manage memory loss and continue participation with meaningful and purposeful tasks.

Late stages of dementia may have difficulty with basic self-care tasks. An OT’s focus will then switch to decreasing the caregiver’s burden, while maximizing the individual’s remaining self-care skills.

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How do OT's maximize each client’s independence?

The journey of dementia is different for each person diagnosed and our role is to provide clients and their families with the ‘tools’ needed to preserve their memory and function for as long as possible. Since OT recognizes that each person is unique, the assessment process allows the therapist to paint a picture of each client. An Occupational Therapist will assess a client’s daily life holistically to create an individualized plan that includes goals, routines and activities that they wish to maintain, protect or work towards.

OT's will also work with clients to identify the areas where they are struggling and help to find ways around these. In addition to these plans, we also aim to provide practical advice, techniques, compensatory strategies and training to each client, family member and caregiver directly. OT's realize that our clients with dementia are surrounded by loved ones who may want to help, but have no idea how to start. This is why we also provide these tools to the family members and caregivers as well as the clients.

Activity analyses allow an OT to understand the typical demands of a particular activity for each client so they can set up the client’s environment to enhance their daily activities, ensure the client’s ability to function at their highest level and support their strengths and abilities. By doing these things, the OT is providing the client with opportunities to engage in tasks that fulfill the person’s need to be productive and help support relationships with others.

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How can an OT help me care for my loved one?

The occupational therapist’s role in this regard is to help caregivers identify nonverbal cues from the client and improve difficulties with communication and uncharacteristic behavioral outbursts. We can provide intervention strategies that will help you respond to your loved one in a caring, non-defensive way even when outbursts or breakdowns in communication occur. An OT will also help you work on determining the underlying emotion that may have caused the client’s behavioral outburst. In turn this can help reduce the stress of caring for someone in such a delicate state.

A successful occupational therapy intervention will enhance function, promote relationships and social participation, re-establish routines and find ways for our clients with dementia to enjoy life. The goal of OT is to help clients live safely with dignity and purpose in their setting, while maintaining connections to the people, places, things and memories that ultimately matter the most.

If you're interested in learning more on how occupational therapy can improve the life of a loved one, contact us today. 

Author Bio:

Katelyn Chilcote, COTA is a facility coordinator for Therapy Specialists and works in a geriatric setting with programs in memory care, outpatient rehab, and skilled nursing. She graduated from Pennsylvania State University with an Occupational Therapy Assistance Degree and a Bachelor’s in Psychology. She further her studies at Colorado State University where she received a Master’s in Organizational Leadership Healthcare Management. She has been a COTA for over nine years and has gained valuable experience and knowledge from a wide variety of practice settings including pediatric inpatient, outpatient and school-based, acute inpatient rehab, veterans homes, mental health, memory care, outpatient geriatric rehab, skilled nursing, and home health. One of the reasons she loves the field of occupational therapy is because of the wide range of opportunities it encompasses. She takes great pride in her patient-centered approach and has always found it a little magical to learn about another human being. By focusing on the person and understanding their special set of circumstances, creativity sparks and lives can be changed, even if it’s mastering a small gain.