Each April, we celebrate National Occupational Therapy Month. For all of us non-OTs or COTAs, we appreciate the work you do and the invaluable contribution you make to aging in place solutions and services. It makes our jobs easier.
OTs actually are the key to assessing and making a determination on what type of home modification to offer and provide in so many cases. Sure, there are many renovations where someone just needs a clean-up, fix-up, or updated look. There may not be any serious medical issues or concerns for such a project. Then again, there just might be. How are we, non-trained professionals, going to know for sure?
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 OTs (and other healthcare professionals such as physical therapists, nurses, physicians, and case managers – and even social workers). 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 (“the home environment”), and (2) the individual functional capabilities of the occupants of the dwelling and how those abilities might be changing over time.
We might have experience in watching people move about their living space and seeing them attempt various movements within their home, or in hearing them describe their concerns or issues. However, if we are not trained medical professionals (such as an OT), we are incapable of taking their needs (physical, sensory, or cognitive) into account and suggesting specific solutions for them. 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.
Even when it might not seem that there are medical or mobility issues involved in the client’s home, there often are. Thus, creating effective aging in place solutions that address the client’s needs and provide for them often is a team or collaborative effort. While the contractor, carpenter, handyman, or trade contractor (and employees) frequently can make changes to a living space without being concerned about a health component being part of the solution, there may be underlying issues that cannot be uncovered or addressed just through observation. This is where OTs become important strategic partners for us.
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 improvements 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 (or the client’s age suggests that such concerns might be present), we need to call upon the OT or similar professional for their assistance. This is where their role makes sure that the client gets the design that will serve them well.
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 about specific medical issues the client was facing because they volunteered it, 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.
OTs make great strategic partners, and we need to identify ones that we can work with to create effective solutions for clients. They can help us identify other AIP professionals (contractors, designers, consultants, and others) to complete the work for the client.