Occupational Therapy: Improving Health Through Enabling Activity

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with grandparents. I have very fond memories of spending time together doing things like playing cards with my grandma or going for long nature walks with my grandpa. I was fortunate to have had them play such a big part of my childhood. It’s because of them that I have such a great respect for older adults. I love hearing stories about their lives: where they were born, what jobs they did when they were younger, where they have travelled and the wisdom they have gained along the way.

Through her older years, my grandmother had several falls and severe osteoporosis that resulted in many broken bones and a severe head injury. Following these injuries, she spent time in rehabilitation care. My grandfather was always a loving and supportive caregiver towards her throughout. It was lovely to witness.

Through my grandma, I was first exposed to occupational therapy and learned about the important role that occupational therapists play in helping people resume their lives after experiencing critical illness or injury. I remember going with my mom to the store to buy my grandma fancy new running shoes so that she could start her therapy. But it wasn’t just about getting her moving again, the occupational therapist helped my grandma so she could make her homemade soup again and resume her life at home with my grandpa. I always knew I wanted to work in healthcare and loved the idea of helping people like my grandparents to lead active and meaningful lives.

Occupational therapists help people who are experiencing illness or disability and having difficulty participating in daily activities. We work with people to build skills, develop strategies, and modify their environments so they can do the occupations they want to do and need to do. Occupations, as defined by occupational therapists are any activity performed by an individual. This includes self-care (e.g. eating, bathing, dressing), productivity (paid work, school) and leisure (socializing, recreation).

Occupational therapists believe that participation in activity is meaningful and enriching to life. Whether it’s making a meal, going for a walk in the park, or playing cards with friends, we believe that the ability to keep doing things is important for health and well-being.

Something that makes occupational therapy unique is that we consider the whole person, including both mental and physical aspects, and we consider how the person’s environment and devices can support their occupations. Treatment is very customized in accordance with a person’s needs and goals. Some of the treatments used by OTs include: prescribing equipment such as wheelchairs, recommending community supports, activity prescription, goal setting, caregiver education, and individual coaching in areas like stress management techniques.

OTs work in a variety of settings including schools, rehabilitation hospitals and community organizations. We work with people of all ages from the very young to people at the end of life. We work with people experiencing both physical and mental illness.

I work at Michael Garron Hospital which is a community hospital in the east end of Toronto. I work with adults who are admitted to the hospital with acute medical problems such as strokes, fractures or heart attacks. I also see patients who have more complex or chronic illnesses like heart failure and dementia.

I really enjoy working in this fast-paced environment that presents me with new challenges every day. I am also involved in projects to improve care for older adults, people affected by obesity and promoting mental health in the workplace. I am passionate about helping people cope with illness and overcome barriers. I am also a strong advocate for improved patient and caregiver experiences in the healthcare system.

Outside of work, I like to find activities that keep me busy both physically and mentally. I am currently pursuing my Masters in Health Studies at Athabasca University. As well, I am a runner, cyclist and swimmer, and occasionally it all comes together when I participate in recreational triathlons. I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and have found exercise to be very helpful in managing my symptoms. I believe strongly in the value of physical activity in promoting mental and physical wellness on both a personal and a professional level.

Starting an exercise program can be intimidating for many people. So I recommend people aim to go for a short walk most days. Pick a realistic distance and start at your current ability level. For some people this may be walking the length of the hall in their apartment building or it may be completing one block outside. That’s fine. The goal is to integrate some movement into your daily routine.

One of the strategies that I find helpful when I am feeling overwhelmed and suggest to others is to make a small to do list in the morning. The items could be a household task like emptying the dishwasher or a physical activity like going for a walk. It important to be realistic when picking activities for yourself and keep the list short. But writing down a short list of tasks can help get you organized and then leave you with a feeling of accomplishment when tasks are completed.

I look forward to continuing to share my experience with the Unsinkable community. We all benefit when we support each other.