The link between Alzheimers and occupational therapy is a personal one for Michelle Stinson. It is the reason she decided to become a certified occupational therapy assistant.
Stinson’s grandmother, who helped raise her, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when Stinson was still a teenager. After watching how the disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain slowly took her grandmother’s life from her and how her grandmother’s occupational therapist worked to help her keep her independence for as long as possible, Stinson knew that the profession was meant for someone who was very special.
Occupational therapists help individuals with Alzheimers rework routines to keep the person with the illness engaged in activity, safe and able to maximize their quality of life.
“While we could, my family cared for her,” Stinson said. “I watched her go through therapy and what a difference it made with her and to our family. So when I graduated and went to college, I did not know what I was doing. My college had an occupational therapy program, so I decided that I wanted to do what they did. I got into it.”
Now Stinson works at The Rehabilitation Center in Sherman, and she says that the best thing families can do is to get their loved ones in therapy as soon as they are diagnosed with the degenerative disease. TRC hosts a free Alzheimer’s support group at 6 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the facility, located at 1216 Hillcrest Drive in Sherman.
“I do not get to deal with Alzheimer’s care much here,” she says. “The way that Alzheimer’s works typically is that initially, a caregiver is able to care for them at home. Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, when it runs its course, they require a lot of care. That usually means a facility. So many people with Alzheimer’s require a facility or end up being homebound with 24-hour care.”
Since TRC is an outpatient facility, therapists there do not get to see individuals as much as they could.
“I do think we could help people in the community if they knew what we could do for Alzheimer’s in the early stages before they get to that point,” she says. “Some of the things you can do for Alzheimer’s earlier in the process is their forgetfulness and their ability to remember things.”
Occupational therapists help people with their activities of daily living, or ADLs.
“These are the things you do to function in daily life,” Stinson says. “It is getting dressed, grooming, using the bathroom, to the higher things like cooking and cleaning. It is also going out in the community and doing shopping. It is taking your medicines. The things that help make you independent are the things that individuals start to lose.”
Where occupational therapists help individuals with Alzheimers is maintaining and acquiring skills as much as they can for as long as they can.
“We can teach their family strategies so the person can do it themselves and so they can learn it in a different way,” Stinson explains. “We can also teach them how to just provide a little assistance like set up of their clothes. Maybe we can help them learn verbal cues. Some people get to the point where you have to say, ‘Okay, put your arm through the sleeve.’ It kind of goes back to what Alzheimer’s ends up being. It is like when you have your preschooler or your toddler and they are learning how to get dressed. That kind of assistance may be what an individual is needing from you. We can assist families.”
A big part of care is education for families. Occupational therapists can help educate them on how to help their loved ones on ways to adapt to keep them safe.
“Some things include having to unplug your stove and some things come with giving them a pill organizer so they do not have to take all their pills out and remember which ones they have to take at certain times,” Stinson says. “You can help with check off lists and writing things down that they can refer back to and use a calendar. We can help them with these things until they get to the point where the disease progresses past that.”
Support comes in many forms.
“We can also talk to them about the resources that can help them further,” Stinson says. “We are also there to help them through it. Being therapists, we are not counselors, but we can also be there and listen and support them.”
TRC provides physical, occupational and speech-language therapy services for children and adults. For more information on the services they provide, visit http://www.TRCSherman.com.