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How Does Occupational Therapy Help People living with Dementia?

By Apricus Health

31st October 2022

Dementia is a cruel and debilitating disease and it gets harder and harder for a person living with dementia to engage independently in activities of daily life, while relatives cope with the deterioration of a loved one’s cognitive and functional abilities.

It is estimated that in Australia, 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 has dementia, and one person is diagnosed with dementia every 6 minutes in Australia These numbers are only expected to rise; it is predicted that 1 million people will have the disease by 2058. Dementia ranks as the leading cause of death for women and number two, after cardiovascular disease,  for men in Australia.

Within this article, Apricus Health is going to outline the basics of dementia, and the relationship between occupational therapy and dementia in Australia.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is an overarching term to describe a disease that progressively attacks the brain, forcing it to degenerate. This causes memory loss, problems with language, and changes in people’s behaviour and thinking. In severe cases, the disease leads to cognitive impairment and total dependence on caregivers. These symptoms differ a lot from person to person and even though dementia is becoming more common, it is important to emphasise that it is not a normal part of aging. There are over 100 diseases that may cause dementia, and the most common causes of dementia include Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia with lewy bodies.

There is currently no cure for dementia and the current management is through medications that can make living with dementia easier and more manageable and through therapy that can improve well-being and daily functioning.

Dementia and occupational therapy 

Occupational therapists work with people with dementia to assess their needs and capabilities and then design and implement individualised and unique therapy programmes that aim to improve their quality of life. The focus of occupational therapy is on maintaining independence and function in daily activities and re-training the brain to ‘remember’ how to do certain familiar tasks.   Therapy can include focusing on improving communication skills, maintaining mobility, conducting important daily activities and supporting social and community interaction.

One of the ways in which we use occupational therapy for people with dementia is to use cognitive function and to stimulate memory recall. Activities can vary from participating in puzzles, memory games, board games, walks, reading, gardening and reminiscing, for example.

Occupational therapists also provide support and guidance to people caring for someone with dementia so that they can better understand the condition and learn tips and strategies to support their loved ones. 

The Benefits of occupational therapy for people with dementia

So, how does occupational therapy help with dementia?

It's important to understand that the games and activities used are not simply used to entertain people with dementia (although it usually does!), but to impact and strengthen their ability to participate in daily activities and routines.

With the main symptom of dementia being the decline of cognitive abilities,  occupational therapy can help  to support re-engagement of familiar tasks and activities  . As this involves a lot of small puzzle pieces of daily life, to follow are some examples of  where  occupational therapy may help a person with dementia.

Maintaining independence for daily tasks

Certain fine motor exercises and activities help to maintain some brain functions in a person’s  daily life, such as eye-hand coordination. One of the main benefits of occupational therapy  is that working on neural functions can help the person  maintain their independence in tasks such as  dressing, grooming, and bathing.  This can sometimes help to delay the need for placement in a long-term care facility.

Mood and behaviour

Dealing with the knowledge that your own brain functions are changing is extremely difficult for a person with dementia.

Therefore, an important part of occupational therapy is helping the person  accept  these changes so reducing anxiety and depression is an important part of the therapist’s work. This can be done by helping to maintain favourite hobbies and pastimes, increasing the person's motivation and self-esteem through maintaining independence and connecting the person and their family to support groups or through social interactions. 

Maintained brain function

Occupational therapy provides an important role in helping to maintain existing cognitive and functional abilities.  Usually this is done through working with the person, and their family, to incorporate small tasks / jobs each day to keep the person physically and mentally active.

Communication and social interaction

Communication and social interactions are vital to our quality of life and our mental and physical wellbeing. Processing spoken information and connecting it with stored memories and learned norms is an essential ability to participate in social engagement.

Support of caregivers

Occupational therapists often become an important support persons for the family and carers of the person with dementia. The occupational therapist can assist with strategies to help cope with the decreasing brain functions of their loved one, improving safety in the home, equipment and modification needs and ongoing education about the likely progression of dementia. 

Learn more with Apricus Health

Looking for more information on dementia support through occupational therapy? Apricus Health are here to help. North Queensland’s leading provider of allied health services, speak to our friendly team today to learn more about how we help with dementia and support older people today.