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According to a 2021 national survey conducted by March of Dimes Canada, 78 per cent of us want to stay in our homes, but the majority of us don’t think we will be able to. The good news is there are things you can do to plan for and support your independence and working with an occupational therapist can be a great step.
Aging in place means being able to stay in your home or community as long as you want and can. To successfully age in place, you’ll need to make sure your home is designed for your needs. You’ll also need access to services and social supports.
Your thoughts about aging and what’s possible for you are important. For example, being open to adapting your activities or using mobility aids can support your independence. It’s also important to know that you can maintain and even build your physical capacity and cognition, or improve your mental health. Remember, healthy aging doesn’t mean being free from any disease or condition. Many people develop conditions – when managed, they’ll have little impact on overall well-being
Your beliefs about aging and whether certain outcomes are inevitable may be influenced by ageism. Everyone is susceptible to self-directed ageism – stereotypes and biases about aging you may adopt that can limit your potential. You might not even recognize you’re doing it!
Ageism in society can cause people to internalize stereotypes about aging. Those internalized beliefs can then reinforce ageism in society. It’s interconnected. Bottom line: it matters that you believe in your ability to adapt, to build strength, to stay in your home or community and to age in a healthy way. So, pay attention to your thoughts at the same time as you take action to improve your home and routines.
Whether or not you’re facing a mobility or health challenge, it’s never the wrong time to begin improving your house and routines to support your healthy aging goals. Health and wellness can be complex as you age. Aspects of your health and life are interconnected. It can be hard to know where to turn or start. That’s when an occupational therapist can help.
We connected with Tiffanie Mo-Law, a registered occupational therapist and CEO and founder of Green Tree Rehabilitation in Alberta, to learn about occupational therapists’ role in supporting healthy aging and independence.
Mo-Law suggests thinking about occupational therapists (often called OTs) as general practitioners for your rehab and day-to-day needs. They address your physical, mental, cognitive and social health related to injuries, chronic conditions and disability to help you solve challenges and live your best life.
“We are the therapists who look at a person’s functional abilities and activities of daily living. If you are having difficulty functioning at home, or at work, we look at every aspect of your life and either rehab you better or put a solution in place for you to fix the issue,” says Mo-Law.
Activities of daily life can include physical activities like cooking, cleaning, leisure activities, or cognitive activities like reading, banking, remembering information or watching movies. While occupational therapists work with many clients following accidents and injury or the onset or advancement of pain or disease, they also support people who want to take preventative action – to make their homes and activities safer and plan for the future.
“We look at your goals, emotional well-being, social skills, physical abilities and spirituality,” she explains.
Occupational therapy is holistic and designed to help you restore or build your capacity so you can live with independence and dignity and enjoy life.
Here are some situations when you may benefit from working with an occupational therapist.
If staying in your home is a priority for you, an OT can help you map out the steps to support that goal. For example, are there areas of your home or property that may need upgrades in the coming years? Do you have a condition or chronic pain that you may need to plan for or treat? Are there aspects of your environment or daily activities that create unnecessary injury risk, or could you introduce new activities that would support your well-being and longevity?
Whether you’re making changes to your home because of accessibility needs or simply wanting to renovate, an occupational therapist can help make sure your money is well spent and any upgrades you do align with your future goals.
“I’ve worked with families who are crushed when I tell them the bathroom won’t work for their family member in a wheelchair,” says Mo-Law. “For example, you didn’t consider the turning radius of a wheelchair, or the counter is installed too high. The contractor doesn’t always know.”
Mo-Law said OTs do their best to help clients plan ahead. For example, if you currently have knee pain and use a brace, it’s possible you may need a mobility aid in the future. How might you design a kitchen or hallways so you can easily get around should that happen?
If you have been injured or you’re feeling pain, an occupational therapist can design a rehab plan for you and connect you to the services you need. They can help triage services to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed.
Whether you’re coping with a new diagnosis or a persistent issue that affects your daily life, there are likely ways you can improve your daily living situation. An occupational therapist can help map out your options and next steps based o/n what’s important to you.
People sometimes make assumptions that a situation is caused by a particular issue. Or, you may struggle to pinpoint the actual cause – perhaps you feel generally unwell and uninspired. An occupational therapist can remove the uncertainty and help you move forward.
“We can help. When we go into people’s homes, we gain a good understanding of where they’re at in their life,” says Mo-Law.
Occupational therapists are regulated mental health professionals and they commonly treat people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. If you are someone who likes to work through problems by “doing,” an occupational therapist may be the right choice for you. The occupational therapist may also involve other mental health professionals or other services if needed.
When occupational therapists visit a client, they spend time getting to know the person. This helps them identify what to assess. They then create a personalized plan. But, there are common areas of the home and routines that can create challenges for people. You can consider your own life and whether any of these areas of concern apply to you.
Throw rugs can easily cause slips, and Mo-Law says it’s best to remove them!
Supportive slippers and shoes can help prevent slips and falls. For example, a wedge slipper with no back may make it more likely that you slip off the footbed and fall or injure your ankle.
Clutter can create trip and fall hazards, can impact cleanliness and is connected to mental health. “When it comes to de-cluttering, people often need someone to do it with them, because it may be hard to give away items that have a lot of meaning,” Mo-Law explains.
Consider rearranging your kitchen to make daily activities easier and safer. For example, move frequently used kitchen tools to be within handy reach.
Do you find you’re able to get in and out of the shower or tub easily? Do you have something to hang on to in near the tub and near the toilet?
Driving is tricky because of its perceived connection to independence. But continuing to drive when it’s no longer safe puts you and others at risk. There are solutions though. An OT can help you can develop a plan that allows you to maintain independence and engagement in the community even if you can no longer drive.
Occupational therapists offer a range of services. Look for an OT who has experience working with older adults. Here are some ways to find an occupational therapist:
Fees for occupational therapy are in line with other professionals and typically range from $130 to $160 per hour. For some clients, Mo-Law would continue to provide support to implement the plan, or call in other services as needed and help guide their work.
Effective Jan. 1, 2022, occupational therapy is covered under the paramedical services portion of the RTOERO extended health plan. The coverage includes anything that’s within the scope of the occupational therapist’s work but does not cover travel to your home.
You’re also covered for aids and appliances, which, depending on your needs, may be recommended to help support your healthy aging and independence goals. This could include aids like grab bars near the toilet (a common fall location) or a lift chair. If you receive a recommendation for an aid or appliance, it’s always best to call to confirm your coverage.
Our society overall and your local community also impact your ability to age in place safely. That’s why aging in place is deeply embedded in the political advocacy we do at RTOERO.
Helping people stay in their homes and communities is good public policy. Health care costs increase on the continuum from home care to long-term care to acute care. A 2021 study by the Canadian Medical Association estimates eldercare costs will double by 2031—to $58.5 billion annually. The study found that better home care options could save $794 million per year by 2031, and moving older adults waiting in hospital to more appropriate settings could save another 1.4 billion annually.
Do what you can as an individual to support yourself and your family members. Also consider lending your voice to the larger effort to advocate for system change.
Aging in place is a priority for most Canadians. Like most things in life, it’s a good idea to think ahead and is also helpful to know the options that exist should you, a family member or a friend ever need them. An in-home assessment with an occupational therapist is a great way to map out a plan to support your healthy aging.