What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?
By Ellen S. Gibson
At Maine AgrAbility, we support farmers, producers and harvesters who work on farms, in the woods, and on the ocean–people who are often self-employed, who work long hours outdoors, often by themselves, and are prone to injury because their work is hard on the body and mentally stressful.
It takes specialized knowledge to understand the nature of farming, fishing, and logging. How does Maine AgrAbility work across the agricultural spectrum to make this work safer and easier?
What is an OT?
Kristin Desrochers is a new staff member at Maine AgrAbility. She is an Occupational Therapist, which is often abbreviated as an “OT.” People are often confused about the field of occupational therapy. I asked Kristin to tell me about her work.
What does an occupational therapist do?
An occupational therapist helps people find ways to do the things they want to or need to do. We are trained to take a detailed look at the tasks people need to complete, to figure out where someone is struggling, and offer specific training or devices to help. This could be showing someone how to get dressed after a stroke, teaching children how to write their names, or suggesting a new piece of equipment that might make a task easier or less stressful on the body.
Do occupational therapists specialize in certain areas?
One of the wonderful things about OTs is that they can specialize in a variety of different areas. Pediatric OTs work with kids and can be found in places like schools and children’s hospitals. Geriatric OTs work with older adults and can be found in nursing homes. There are OTs who specialize in ergonomics and body mechanics and work with businesses to increase productivity and decrease workplace injury. Some OTs specialise in assistive technology and can provide personalized suggestions for tools and devices that help a person to do almost anything more independently. The OTs at Maine AgrAbility specialize in understanding the unique challenges farmers, fishermen, and woodsmen face.
What kind of training do you need to be an occupational therapist?
The training requirements for being an occupational therapist have changed over the years. Today, to become an Occupational Therapist, you need to have either a masters degree or a doctorate degree in occupational therapy. To become an Occupational Therapist Assistant you need an associates degree.* Some of the courses for occupational therapy include classes in psychology, child development, anatomy, disability and injury, mental health, task analysis, assessment strategies, and treatment approaches.
* To learn about colleges in Maine that offer programs in occupational therapy, go to: https://occupational-therapy-colleges.com/.
There are also two-year programs to receive a degree as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield is a Maine-based school that offers this program.
How does occupational therapy differ from physical therapy?
Physical therapy focuses on helping a person regain strength or range of motion. OTs focus on function, that is, making sure people can do the things they need to do to take care of themselves and live as independently as possible.
A physical therapist (PT) is going to treat your body, an occupational therapist is going to treat your life. If you are suffering from back pain, a PT might help you do strength training and stretching exercises to help heal your body. An OT can help with those things, too, but will also look at how that back pain is affecting your life. An OT will help make suggestions on how you might be able to do things differently to continue working while you heal your back and to help prevent you from injuring your back in the future.
Although we are unable to travel during the pandemic, in normal situations Maine AgrAbility will visit clients at their worksites–whether that’s the farm, a fishing vessel, or a logging site. These days, we meet clients virtually. Can you tell me more about these assessments, whether they take place in person or virtually?
During an AgrAbility worksite assessment, we ask questions about what a typical day looks like for you and what tasks or routines are difficult or painful for you to complete. We will observe your routines and listen to your concerns. We ask questions such as, “What is making your life more difficult? Are the doors difficult to open? Is the lighting sufficient? How do you move supplies?” We will look at your workflow and talk with you in detail about the specific tasks you complete. This information and observation allow us to suggest changes or equipment in order to make these tasks easier or less painful for you to complete.
During a farm assessment, we ask questions about what a typical day looks like for you and what tasks or routines are difficult or painful for you to complete. We will observe your routines and listen to your concerns. We ask questions such as, “What is making your life more difficult? Are the barn doors difficult to open? Is lighting in the barn sufficient? How do you get water to your animals?” We will look at your workflow and talk with you in detail about the specific tasks you complete. All this information allows us to suggest changes or equipment to make these tasks easier or less painful for you to complete.
What led you to the field of occupational therapy?
The short answer is that OT combined my love of creativity, problem-solving, and helping people. When I was younger I loved to build and create things–legos, booby-trapping my house, and creating anything out of everything! I also loved being with people and helping people. I didn’t know what OT was until I was halfway through college. A career advisor pointed out that my love of science and my passion for helping people might be a good fit for occupational therapy. Once I learned more about it, I could not believe that such a profession existed and I didn’t know about it sooner. OT is a profession that allows me to use my determination and creative problem-solving skills to help people.
What do you like best about working in this field?
I like that OT is so diverse. There is always something new to learn. I am really drawn to technology and learning how to use technology to help make our lives easier. I like getting to work with other OTs–we are a bunch of creative, determined people! I like that every day brings a new problem to solve. Most of all, I like that I get to help people live meaningful lives doing what they love to do.
Thanks, Kristin! It’s great to have you on the AgrAbility team!
Do you know a farmer, fisherman, or logger who is limited because of pain, injuries, or disabling conditions? The occupational therapists at Maine AgrAbility can help. Gives us a call at (207) 944-1533.