How Occupational Therapy Helps People with Dementia

Occupational therapy is probably best known for its role in physical rehabilitation. However, in the simplest terms, the primary goal of occupational therapy is to enable people to participate more fully in the activities of everyday life. Occupational therapists (OTs) have a saying; they ask, “What matters to you?” not, “What’s the matter with you?”

Occupational therapy for seniors focuses primarily on improving day-to-day skills. OTs don’t use manual therapy techniques like physical therapists do. Rather, they help seniors gain, or regain, their independence in instances where patients are struggling to perform the basic activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning or walking. They also help seniors learn how to adjust to any challenges they face due to temporary or permanent disabilities.

How occupational therapy helps people with dementia

Dementia involves a continual loss of cognitive function resulting from damage to the brain. The resulting memory problems can wreak havoc on day-to-day activities. That is where an OT can help.

The role of an OT is to provide clients and their families with the tools needed to preserve their memory and function for as long as possible. They provide practical advice and teach techniques directly to the client as well as their family members.

These are some of the ways occupational therapy can help:

Providing education and support to caregivers

OTs can educate family members, primary caregivers, and those in the early stages of dementia about the disease and its functional implications.

Occupational therapy focuses on relieving the caregiving burden by promoting independence.
An OT can help set up routines that make taking care of a loved one easier. An effective routine can help with making sure that a loved one is drinking and eating enough and taking medications at the right time. The OT can also determine if the person responds better to certain types of cueing and other communication strategies, and work with the caregiver to use those strategies.

They will also ensure that the well-being of the caregiver is being met, offering emotional support, coping strategies, and information about available networks.

Reducing behavioral problems

Daily tasks can become more difficult to do when someone suffers from cognitive impairment. This, in turn, increases frustration. When patients with dementia cannot carry out tasks that they know they should be able to perform, it leads to embarrassment, aggravation and anxiety. Those feelings can sometimes lead to a catastrophic reaction or meltdown.

Occupational therapy can help simplify such tasks to help the patient become more successful in carrying them out. This can reduce the levels of stress, agitation and anger.

Lessening the amount of care needed

While OTs can’t cure a person’s dementia and cognitive performance, they can help improve function through remediation or compensatory strategies, such as breaking tasks down into smaller chunks or reteaching skills.

OTs help structure the home environment to aid in the patient being able to do simple things safely and effectively, which results in less care that the caregiver has to provide. For example, OTs may introduce a tub/transfer bench to the activity of bathing so the dementia patient can get in and out of the tub safely. This may reduce the amount of time the caregiver needs to spend with the patient during the bath.

Improving function and safety

Research has found that occupational therapy can increase home safety for people with dementia. A qualified therapist will assess the home and make recommendations for a safer, less-stress environment. This may include adding specialized equipment or simply arranging furniture and necessities in a more practical manner.

Promoting relationships and social participation

Dementia is characterized by behaviors and a loss of communication that’s often hard on relationships. OTs will look at how problem behaviors are affecting the relationships and social interactions of the person with the disease. The OT can help you look at what appears to trigger these behaviors and recommend possible solutions.

Ridge Crest offers short-term occupational therapy services in a skilled nursing setting. Learn more here.