Occupational Therapy Practitioners Improve Safety for Older Adults

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In honor of Older Americans Month, the American Occupational Therapy Association highlights the work of occupational therapy practitioners to reduce fall risk, increase community mobility, and help older adults engage in everyday activities.

The goal is to preserve the dignity, independence, and safety of the person.

The Administration for Community Living has designated May as Older Americans Month. This year’s theme is, “Safe Today. Healthy Tomorrow.”

Occupational therapy practitioners are skilled health, rehabilitation, and educational professionals that help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations). Every day across the U.S., occupational therapy practitioners work with older adults and caregivers to educate them on strategies and behaviors to ensure safety, promote health, and maximize participation in valued activities.

Occupational therapy practitioners work to keep older Americans safe and promote independence in their everyday lives in the following ways:

  •     Preventing falls. Falls are the leading cause of injury and accidental death in adults over the age of 65. Falls and the fear of falling can cause disability and decreased independence. Occupational therapy practitioners can help older adults manage their fall risk by addressing physical, behavioral, and environmental risks factors, such as impaired balance, unsafe habits or routines, and hazards in our home or community like loose throw rugs or unclear pathways.
  •     Suggesting environmental modifications. An occupational therapist can conduct an assessment of an individual in his or her home or work environment to suggest modifications, equipment, and strategies that are unique to the client’s needs. “If the home or other environment is not supporting the person’s abilities, the occupational therapist can provide an assessment and recommendations to make it safer and encourage participation in meaningful activities,” says Karen Smith, OT, CAPS, Practice Associate for the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).
  •     Promoting safe driving and community mobility. With increasing age come changes in physical, mental, and sensory abilities that can challenge a person's continued ability to drive safely. Each December, AOTA along with AARP, AAA, The Hartford, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) marks Older Driver Safety Awareness Week with resources to help older drivers and their families determine ways to remain safe on the road or establish new ways of getting around in the community. CarFit events help older drivers find the best “fit” in their vehicles to be sure they’re taking full advantage of all the latest safety features. When driving ability is in question, occupational therapy practitioners serve the individual by providing driving evaluations to find solutions to stay on the road, or when risk exceeds the reason, explore alternative ways to stay mobile in the community, based on each person’s individual strengths and challenges.
  •     Helping family members keep older adults safe. Sometimes finding the words to start the conversation with a loved one about in-home or driving safety can be daunting. Occupational therapy practitioners facilitate these conversations with the message to enhance safety and independence. “The goal is to preserve the dignity, independence, and safety of the person,” says Elin Schold-Davis, OTR/L, CDRS, Project Coordinator for AOTA’s Older Driver Initiative. “Occupational therapy practitioners can empower loved ones with personalized information and talking points vital to a successful conversation.”
  •     Enhancing function for individuals with low vision. Occupational therapy practitioners can help people with visual impairments by recommending lighting solutions for specific areas and activities, modifying tasks or the environment to maximize function, and teaching them to use remaining vision effectively to accomplish everyday tasks.
  •     Managing medications. Because occupational therapy practitioners have a holistic approach to health care, they can help older adults and their families understand how medications affect balance, vision, decision-making, and more. They can also suggest individualized strategies and solutions to ensure that medications are taken correctly.

Additionally, older Americans can prioritize their own safety by getting an annual eye exam; talking to their physician and pharmacist about how medications can affect balance, strength, vision, and fall risk; maintaining a healthy sleep schedule; and staying active and participating in regular exercise.

To download tip sheets on any of the above topics or to learn more about how occupational therapy practitioners work to empower older adults, visit http://www.aota.org/consumers.

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to http://www.aota.org.

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Katie Riley
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