Improving the “occupations” of life with occupational therapy

May 12, 2022 Swedish Health Team

occupational therapist works with senior woman


In this article:

  • Occupational therapy increases your ability to carry out the activities that make up the “occupations” of your day-to-day life.

  • Occupational therapy may overlap with physical therapy, but they focus on different issues and use different techniques to get the desired results.

  • Two occupational therapists at Swedish answer common questions about occupational therapy and its role in improving your ability to function.

When you want to get back to the “occupation” of living your daily life after an illness or injury, occupational therapy can help you reach your goals and live more independently.

We talked to two of our occupational therapists at Swedish: Simon Gale, OTR/L, ATP, and Mariah Burwell, OTR/L, for an overview of occupational therapy and to answer common questions about its role in improving function, mobility, and independence.

What is occupational therapy?

Simon: Generally speaking, occupational therapy addresses your needs when you are having difficulty performing your normal “occupations.” In this context, an occupation is whatever you need or want to accomplish in your day.

Mariah: Occupational therapy treats you when you experience an illness or injury that impacts your ability to participate in and carry out your daily activities. It is not exclusively about your professional occupation, but rather all day-to-day tasks you need and want to be able to do. Occupational therapy encompasses almost all aspects of daily life and targets various skills and abilities to promote independence in any aspect of one’s life.

How does occupational therapy differ from physical therapy?

Simon: There can be an overlap between the two depending on the setting. Physical therapy places a heavier emphasis on your physical abilities. Occupational therapy places a heavier emphasis on what you want to do.

For example, suppose you recently had a stroke and have difficulty getting in the shower. In that case, a physical therapist focuses more on the strength and balance required to perform a shower transfer. An occupational therapist focuses more on how the transfer is conducted and identifies techniques and equipment that make the process safer and more accessible.

Mariah: Occupational therapy focuses on your daily life. Therapists look at the roles you fulfill and how you perform meaningful activities. We focus on your skills and abilities and consider your unique environment, overall capabilities and goals. Then we use different lenses of our expertise to develop a plan to improve, modify and adapt various aspects of those activities.

Physical therapy uses a more biomechanical approach and targets the actual impairment that limits your mobility and function. Physical therapists are movement experts. They use exercise, education and hands-on care to promote movement, reduce pain and prevent disability.

Both professions aim to improve your quality of life and well-being through hands-on care unique to each individual.

Who needs occupational therapy?

Simon: Anyone of any age with some form of disability preventing them from performing needed or wanted daily tasks can benefit from occupational therapy.

This includes:

  • Infants and children with developmental disabilities
  • People with mental health issues
  • People with cognitive and physical disabilities

Occupational therapists address a wide range of issues with innovative solutions that get real-life results. We can fabricate a custom hand orthosis if you have a hand injury. Or help you re-learn how to dress yourself after a stroke. Occupational therapy features progressive work simulation activities for injured workers and pre-writing exercises for a child with cerebral palsy. Treatment is individualized according to your needs, abilities, and goals.

Occupational therapists work in a wide range of settings, including:

  • Schools
  • The community
  • Acute care hospitals
  • Acute rehabilitation units
  • Long-term care settings
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Hand therapy clinics
  • Psychiatry settings

Mariah: If you experience changes in your function and independence due to an illness, injury or disability, occupational therapy helps you regain function and improve your independence. Occupational therapists also offer care for people with a disability or developmental delay from birth that impacts their ability to achieve certain milestones.

If it’s occupational therapy, does that mean it’s restricted to care for issues that have something to do with my job?

Simon: This is a question that is frequently asked. “Occupation” refers to anything that a person needs or wants to do – within reason. I have never trained somebody to be a violin virtuoso or an NFL quarterback!

Occupational therapists address your self-care needs such as dressing, showering and using the restroom. They look for ways to increase your performance and productivity in the activities that make up your life.

Mariah: Occupational therapists can target skills and abilities required to carry out your job in various treatment settings, depending on your unique situation. There is an outpatient setting where occupational therapists primarily focus on your return to work after an injury using work conditioning and hardening techniques. Some occupational therapists work with teenagers and adults to help them develop their skills and overcome the health-related obstacles that stand in the way of their participation in the workforce.

We use “occupational” to refer to whatever “occupies” your time. Your job is only one occupation that makes up your life activities, so it is not the sole focus of occupational therapy.

How do I access occupational therapy services

You need a doctor’s referral to access occupational therapy care. Your doctor may recommend occupational therapy if you have difficulty carrying out your basic daily activities, including dressing, toileting, self-feeding and bathing, and higher-level activities such as cooking, cleaning, working, leisure, etc.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about occupational therapy, contact one of the Occupational Therapy clinics at Swedish.  We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources

Understanding chronic pain

Recovering from a health crisis, one step at a time

BRIDGES program at Swedish helps young adults with disabilities build careers and life skills

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Previous Article
At its 10-year anniversary, the Swedish MS Center marks a decade of healing
At its 10-year anniversary, the Swedish MS Center marks a decade of healing

Swedish's MS Center is the country's largest and most comprehensive.

Next Article
Overdose deaths are rising. Swedish responds with treatment and support.
Overdose deaths are rising. Swedish responds with treatment and support.

More people have died from drug overdoses in the past year than ever before. Learn from a Swedish addiction...