Occupational Therapy for Dementia: Can It Help?

family in occupational therapy for dementiaWhen most people think of occupational therapy (OT), they usually associate it with either children or stroke survivors. In recent years, though, occupational therapy for dementia patients has been gaining a lot of traction.

And with good reason. Occupational therapists can make a huge difference in the quality of life for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

How Occupational Therapy for Dementia Helps

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapists can help dementia patients to “live life to its fullest by adapting the environment and focusing on what they can do to maximize engagement in activity (occupation), promote safety, and enhance quality of life.”

That’s a pretty tall order. Let’s take a closer look.

Adapting the Environment

Whether your loved one lives in a private home or a skilled nursing facility, their environment will need to change as the dementia progresses. This isn’t about bumping into furniture and not managing steps anymore. That’s a different issue. We’re talking about elements of everyday living that have become difficult because of mental issues, not physical ones.

Take getting dressed, for example. Cheryl’s occupational therapist, Jen, noticed that she was arriving for appointments in mismatched outfits. Jen realized that while Cheryl was physically capable of dressing herself, cognitive issues with color matching were affecting her appearance. Jen suggested rearranging Cheryl’s closet by outfit so she wouldn’t have to mix and match. From then on Cheryl looked great again.

Maximizing Engagement

“Maximize engagement” is the OT way to say, “We want to help you stay as active and independent as possible.” Bob always enjoyed playing racquetball, but the game had become too fast for him. Seth, Bob’s occupational therapist, got him hooked on ping-pong instead. Melissa ran a one-woman cake-decorating business for years. Even after she retired, she loved wowing her children and grandchildren with her creations. Lately, though, she found herself forgetting some of her more intricate skills, and decorating full cakes went from fun to frustrating. Rather than see Melissa give up her hobby, Vicky, her OT, suggested cupcake decorating instead. Melissa loved the idea.

Promoting Safety

Often when loved ones begin to forget small stairs and other obstacles within their home, caregivers turn to wheelchairs to solve the problem. Here’s where an occupational therapist comes in. An OT can suggest ways to keep your loved one safe while still keeping them as independent as possible. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting up “STOP” signs inside the house wherever there’s a step; sometimes it can involve  GPS devices if your loved one is in danger of wandering.

Quality of Life

When you think about your own life, what are the things that add meaning to it? Is it spending time with family? A hobby you love? Is it your faith community?

These things and more are what enhance our quality of life. And when those suffering dementia can no longer take part in these activities, their quality of life is diminished – and so is their will to keep going.

Greg was an avid crossword fan. He was a whiz at it, too. But difficulty with word retrieval had turned his hobby into a real source of pain. Kevin, Greg’s OT, suggested to Greg’s kids that they use online puzzle generators to create puzzles with easier hints and more common words. Now, every time they visit their father they bring a new puzzle – and Greg loves it.

If you think your loved one could benefit from occupational therapy, give your healthcare provider a call. And if you have experience with occupational therapy for a loved one with dementia, please share in the comments below!