Occupational therapy, also referred to as OT, is a branch of healthcare that aims to help individuals of all ages who have cognitive, physical, or sensory impairments. Occupational therapy utilizes assessment and intervention to support individuals with everyday tasks, or Activities of Daily Living (ADLs). While often used as part of rehabilitation after an injury or illness, it has also shown promising outcomes supporting dementia patients, their families, and/or caregivers.
Below, we detail basic information about occupational therapy for dementia patients, including the potential benefits, the types of occupational therapy for dementia, and how this therapy-based intervention may differ based on dementia stages.
Over the past several decades, there have been many research studies and clinical trials assessing the efficacy of occupational therapy for dementia patients. The overwhelming majority of studies and trials conclude that occupational therapy may be an effective intervention to assist in maintaining cognition and functionality while reducing psychiatric symptoms in dementia patients. A summary of the most notable benefits observed across studies and trials is listed below.
Occupational therapists can assist those with dementia either in a senior living facility or in the patient’s home. Throughout the continuum of dementia care, occupational therapists can intervene to help patients retain existing function as well as provide wellness programs, educate caregivers, and promote patient safety and well-being. Occupational therapy interventions can be categorized into four key types:
The type of occupational therapy and associated strategies vary based on the stage of dementia the patient is currently in. A series of assessments are typically performed to determine the optimal type of intervention and create a personalized plan to meet patient and caregiver goals.
In the early stages of dementia, patients may be able to function in a job or their normal activities but may misplace objects, miss appointments, or forget to take medications. Occupational therapy interventions for early-stage dementia patients may include the use of memory aids, such as calendars, reminders, alarms, or checklists.
Middle-stage dementia patients will have more pronounced symptoms. They may show a more significant decline in memory and overall cognitive function, and they may struggle to complete basic ADLs, such as dressing, bathing, and toileting, on their own due to decreased sequencing abilities and motor planning. In this stage, occupational therapy interventions may include retraining ADLs and balance and functional mobility, which can help increase or maintain patient independence while reducing caregiver burden.
In the later stages of dementia, patients will likely not be oriented to person, place, or time and will likely be highly dependent on caretakers for the majority of daily activities, such as feeding, bathing, and toileting. In addition to cognitive impairments, late-stage dementia patients may have a severe loss of motor control and functional abilities. Late-stage occupational therapy for dementia patients may include educating caregivers on safely transferring patients, exercise programs for contracture management, support groups for caregivers, and other methods for improving the patient’s quality of life.
In addition to monitoring improvements or changes in behavior, mood, and quality of life, providers and caregivers will likely want to assess overall brain health over time to determine whether the intervention is helping the dementia patient retain brain function from both a cognitive and functional perspective.
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