Depending on who we ask, and our own particular area of expertise, aging in place services would be very different without the input and collaboration of occupational therapist (and other healthcare professionals such as physical therapists, nurses, physicians, and case managers). They are able to evaluate a dwelling from two important perspectives – (1) how adequate the living space is to allow for normal movement and functioning within it, and (2) the individual capabilities of the occupants of the dwelling and how those abilities might be changing over time.
As experienced as we might be with watching people move about and seeing them attempt various movements within their home, or in hearing them describe their concerns or issues, unless we are an occupational therapist or other healthcare professional, we are incapable of suggesting specific solutions from a medical or therapeutic standpoint. Contractors can’t do this, designers can’t, and consultants can’t. We all have our areas of expertise that will allow us to work with clients that have needs of a progressive, ongoing, aging, or traumatic nature, but none of us who do not have the formal training or credentials can make specific suggestions to take into account and improve or maintain the health and well-being of the client.
Creating aging in place solutions often is a team or collaborative effort. If it’s relatively simple and really does not rely on the physical ability of the client in making the suggested modification, the contractor, carpenter, handyman, or trade contractor (and employees) can make the changes without being concerned about a health component being part of the solution. Modifications such as switching out or replacing door handles, door locks, light switches, light bulbs, light fixtures, and faucets, or adding general purpose safety bars (also called grab bars or assist bars) or a folding shower seat in the bath are ones that would be appropriate for most anyone whether they have any physical limitations or not. They apply universally and aren’t dependent upon someone’s ability for using them.
However, when we are the ones who initially find the work that needs to be done and we notice – through our observations of the living space or in meeting with the client, or perhaps during a pre-meeting telephone conversation – that there are some physical, sensory, or cognitive concerns that need to be addressed and factored into the design solutions, we need to call upon the occupational therapist or similar professional. This is where their services are invaluable and how they become a very important strategic partner for delivering aging in places services and solutions to the client.
The OT will help us create a plan of action that meets the needs, requirements, timing, and budget of the client – something that we would be incapable of doing on our own or at least something we should not attempt because of the concern that we would overlook something, not be aware of something that needed to be addressed for the client, or not have access to the medical history of the client. Even if somehow we did learn of specific medical issues the client was facing, we don’t have the training or expertise to be able to evaluate them and make the appropriate suggestions. OTs fill this role quite nicely.
Sometimes an OT will do an assessment for someone or observe their dwelling during the course of providing their professional services and note that improvements would help their client. While they may have a good idea of what they would like to see done, construction solutions is not part of their training and background just as health care is not a part of ours. They can bring this project to the contractor.
Occupational therapists make great strategic partners, and we need to identify ones that we can work with to create effective solutions for clients. OTs need to identify other AIP professionals (contractors, designers, consultants, and others) they can work with also.