Making adjustments

Occupational therapy can aid those with memory impairment

Stock image courtesy of MetroCreative

MARQUETTE — The tasks of daily living can become more challenging when a person suffers from memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Friends, family members, caregivers and others may wonder how they can help — one avenue is occupational therapy.

Rachelle Connon, occupational therapist at UP Health System Rehab Services Memory Rehab, gave a presentation on how occupational therapy can aide those with memory loss or dementia, as well as their caregivers, on May 23 at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette.

She explained that symptoms of dementia include impaired short term memory and trouble problem-solving — these symptoms can translate into functional difficulties with important daily tasks such as driving, handling money, preparing and consuming meals or taking medication, which can be a concern for safety.

“When we’re having a diagnosis with some memory impairments, safety is where I really, really, really like to look into,” Connon said.

Rachelle Connon, occupational therapist, UP Health System Rehab Services Memory Rehab

Occupational therapists, such as Connon, can help identify the areas that a person is struggling with and make recommendations on how the task can be adapted to suit the person — in some cases, depending on the task and the progression of memory loss, supervision may be recommended, especially if safety is a concern.

“I can give you recommendations as to what level of supervision your loved one needs,” Connon said, noting that sometimes, family members may not realize how much a person is truly struggling with daily tasks, even if they see them regularly.

Connon does an extensive assessment when a patient is referred to her — she assesses the person’s level of cognitive impairment and their performance on practical tasks in a number of settings.

“I’m really looking at those problem-solving skills because that and your perceptual skills, as with your short term memory, can get in the way of your safety,” she said.

The overall focus of the assessment, Connon says, is to ascertain a person’s level of ability to safely care for themselves, and find out what adaptations may improve their safety and/or quality of living.

“I’m evaluating the level of cognitive impairment that you present with and how is it affecting your safety — your safety in your home, your safety in the community, your medication management,” she said.

Safety is a major concern because memory impairment can “result in a decreased ability to identify risks, observe the results of actions and behaviors or apply the rules of safety and the ability to respond to an emergency situation,” Connon said.

This is of particular concern in activities that can be dangerous, such as driving or medication management.

However, driving can be a particularly difficult task to give up, especially if the person has always been “the driver” in the family, Connon said.

“I find that families will manage their money, do their medications, do their laundry, do their cooking, do their shopping, do their banking — because they don’t trust that they’re doing it safely, but they let them drive,” she said.

In Connon’s assessment, she can examine skills that are important for safe driving, and make recommendations regarding their driving that can be shared with a person’s physician and family members, which can allow the person, their doctor and their loved ones to make an informed choice regarding their driving safety.

Medication management is also a safety concern, Connon said.

“Medication error can have devastating implications to your health,” she said, “and we just assume that so-and-so’s been taking medications for three years (or) ten years and that they know what they’re doing. We find that the interpretation of reading the label of the medication bottle, a lot of people do it wrong.”

She recommends helping and/or supervising the person while they take or set up their medications and double-checking labels and instructions.

Connon also gave recommendations on how to adjust daily tasks, such as mealtime, for a person who has memory loss.

She said that placing a tray with multiple courses, utensils, condiments and beverages can be quite overwhelming for a person who has memory loss.

Depending on the progression of memory impairment, the person may not know where to start, which utensils to use or which condiments go with which items.

“It can become overwhelming and then they don’t want to eat, Connon said, “this collection of up to 15 items may be very confusing for a person, there may be no cues of where to start or what to eat first.”

To make the situation less overwhelming, Connon recommends giving the person each course of a meal individually, or offering a choice between two items to get them started. She also recommends replacing a tray with a placemat and reducing clutter on the table.

It’s also important to consider physical things that may be making mealtime difficult, such as arthritis, lack of appetite, constipation, oral pain or dry mouth, she said.

Overall, Connon says that occupational therapy is a helpful tool for those who have memory impairment, as it can help identify their specific needs and find ways to fulfill those needs.

Occupational therapy is just one piece of the services offered at through memory rehab at UP Health System Rehab services, she said, noting that a speech therapist, a neurologist and a social worker are also on staff at the clinic, which can give patients and their families the chance to work with a variety of professionals who can offer advice, support and guidance.

The services offered through memory rehab are available upon referral by a physician.

For those who want to learn more prior to getting a referral, they can call 906-225-5900 with any questions. Interested parties can also can set up a time to talk with a staff member and tour the rehab center to see if the services may be right for them or their loved one.