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Occupational Therapy: It’s not just about work

Amy Savarese, DPT, MOT, OTR/L

When defining the word occupation, what first comes to mind? Provided the current economic situation, it is understandable one would gravitate towards the terms job, work, or employment. Contrary to its perceived societal definition, according to Merriam-Webster, occupation is defined as “an activity in which one engages.” For instance, tasks such as brushing one’s teeth, reading this article, cooking, driving, and even twittering are all occupations.

With regard to occupational therapy, “occupation” is a task deemed meaningful and purposeful to the patient. A common satirical question posed by patients who are unfamiliar with occupational therapy is, “Are you going to find me a job?” Unfortunately, providing potential employment opportunities is not the job description of an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists evaluate and treat individuals of all ages who are limited in performing meaningful and purposeful activities and thereby promote optimal independence through adaptive strategies which ultimately provide an enhanced quality of life.

Self-care, work and leisure are prime areas in which one may be experiencing deficits in their lives and would benefit from occupational therapy (OT) intervention. Self-care tasks are Activities of Daily Living (ADL’s) which involve eating, grooming, dressing, bathing, and toileting. Work is explicable in its name and are tasks requiring an exerted amount of effort for an intended outcome. Leisure tasks are pleasurable activities in which one spends their unoccupied time such as scrapbooking, playing sports, and reading. Occupational therapists also analyze potential deficits in one’s ability to perform Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL’s) such as financial management, driving, meal preparation, housework, medication management, shopping and resource utilization.

Occupational therapists practice in a variety of settings including hospitals, outpatient clinics, home health, skilled nursing units, mental health facilities as well as school systems. Overall, therapeutic intervention is client-centered and generally involves environmental accommodations, adaptive strategies, education in the use of adaptive equipment, ADL/IADL training, therapeutic exercise and therapeutic activities.

In the orthopedic outpatient setting, it is common for people to be unfamiliar with the difference between occupational and physical therapy. Physical therapists evaluate, diagnose and treat impairments of the entire musculoskeletal system in order to improve mobility or prevent disability thus, holistically restore function for an enhanced quality of life. Although both professions utilize a holistic approach in rehabilitating the client, occupational therapists focus on treating primarily the upper extremity including the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand with regards to ADL’s and IADL’s. Occupational therapists evaluate muscle strength, range of motion, sensation, cognition, and perception. Also unique to the OT profession is the therapist’s ability to address potential psychosocial factors which may present due to one’s dysfunction or disease. Occupational therapists maintain a client-centered approach and empower the patient to return to their purposeful and meaningful occupations in order to achieve optimal functional independence.

The term occupation is the foundation of the occupational therapy profession. Being able to perform one’s ‘occupation’ including all meaningful and purposeful activities without pain or limitation ultimately contributes to an enhanced quality of life. For help with your occupational tasks, contact First Coast Rehabilitation, where patient care comes first.

Amy Savarese is an occupational therapist who completing her doctorate in physical therapy giving her a dual degree status..