We tend to think of the word "occupational" as relating to one's occupation, or job. But, when it comes to occupational therapy, the word occupational was defined early on as a philosophy - the act of being occupied - and its importance to human health. April is Occupational Therapy Month, which presents a good opportunity to talk about occupational therapy and how it benefits those who've lost some independence through injury or disease.

The foundations of occupational therapy are rooted in the belief that human occupation, or the simple activities of daily living, have curative properties. In other words, the ability to engage in hobbies or activities that you love to do is just plain good for the soul.

Occupational therapy is a science-driven, evidence-based profession that enables people of all ages to function at the highest level possible following injuries, illness or disabilities. Occupational therapists help individuals design their lives, develop skills, adjust home, school or work environments to get beyond disability or limitations.

This requires taking the full picture into account, including a person's psychological, physical, emotional and social needs. It is highly individualized and concentrates on goals concentrating on what matters to the individual in terms of everyday activities that need to be done, or are desirable in making life worth living.

Occupational therapy starts with an order by a physician due to the patient, family member, nurse, physician or other staff member noticing that the patient may not be at their baseline of functional performance. We can provide adaptive equipment such as long handle reachers, sock aides or long-handle sponges to help them complete bathing and dressing tasks. To make bathing and toileting successful, we can add a shower bench in the shower or a commode over the toilet to adapt the heights so the patient can get up with ease.

Depending on the patient's needs, we may work on the ability to move certain body parts or improve agility and balance. People with limited dexterity, such as a complete or incomplete spinal cord injury, may need help eating and we can teach them in using a universal cuff with a fork or spoon or slipping a pencil into the device to use a keyboard. We can teach various one-handed techniques to complete ADLs (activities of daily living) for eating, cooking, dressing, and bathing.

Patients also learn how to prevent further injury and are provided home exercise programs. Through caregiver training, family members and friends are taught how to get the patient from the bed to the toilet, or how to get the patient into the shower, and how to reduce pressure sores by changing positions frequently. Sometimes, adjustments may be needed in the home. We guide families in determining what's needed, including grab bars, modifying couches or chairs with arms so that someone can get in and out of the seating surface with ease, organizing a kitchen so the patient can reach the daily items they need, or installing ramps or stair glides.

In the hospital, one of the most frequent questions I'm asked is, "How long will I have to be here?" or, "How long will it be before I can do things I used to?" As I pointed out earlier, each case is unique and a custom plan is made for each patient. In general, it takes about three to four days to recover for every day a patient is hospitalized, but this can vary. Motivation, depression and other factors can interfere with success.

Long term, the answer to such questions gets tougher. Again, much depends on the patient's deficit, how motivated they are to recover and a willingness to adjust to what can be done. Those who have had a stroke may be looking at one to two years. Even less debilitating situations can leave the person fatigued and frustrated and they often underestimate the amount of energy needed to accomplish even some simple tasks.

Occupational therapists are an important part of the medical profession that help people participate in the activities they want and need to do, through the therapeutic experience of everyday activities. We take a holistic and customized approach to all evaluations, interventions and treatments to help children with disabilities participate in school and social situations, assist those recovering from injuries to regain skills, and older adults to stay as independent as possible, with specialized support and services that only occupational therapists can provide.

For more information on outpatient therapy services at St. Mary's call 816-655-5700; for inpatient therapy services call 816-655-5661.

Amy Bruce is an occupational therapist at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs.