Occupational and Physical Therapists: What Do they Do and Which is Which?

Baby boomers with elder parents rejoice! I am pulling elder parent duty this week, with lots of time on my hands (here and there anyway), and can answer some simple questions that will come up the first time you ever find yourself in a similar position.

*  *  *

After a big medical event, the occupational therapists and physical therapists — the PTs and the OTs — work with the patient in discrete chunks of time throughout the day. There are others Ts around (speech therapists, for instance), but the PTs and the OTs are the main Ts that’ll be coming through.

If you’re like most people, you’ll be confused about what the OTs and PTs do and which is which.

There’s a simple shorthand. Now, please use caution, Will Robinson, when using this simple shorthand, because, in my experience, most OTs and PTs are not in love with this simple shorthand, but it surely is a good place for you to start understanding what they do. The simple shorthand is that OTs are arms and PTs are legs, so OTs are more about fine motor skills and PTs are more about gross motor skills. Or if you really want to raise a ruckus and maybe get on the bad side of the PTs coming through, you can use this one: OTs are fine and PTs are gross.

Another way to think of it is that occupational therapists help patients get better at the things that occupy their time, such as brushing their teeth, combing their hair, etc., while physical therapists help them get better at doing anything remotely like what you would do in gym class (aka physical education), such as walking.

Either way, when they’re not around and you’re keeping an elder parent company, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to push your parent to do things on their own which they might not initially want to do. They want a drink of water from a cup on the tray in front of them? You can pick it up and put it to their mouth, but maybe you should think like an OT and ask them if they can pick it up and put it to their mouth? Gentle requests like that can get your parent into the mode of trying to push against the physical envelope in which they find themselves unhappily confined, and that in turn can help them start to feel a bit of empowerment and accomplishment. At least in my experience, even when they fail — and make no mistake about it: taking a sip out of a cup can be a very big deal after a medical trauma — they find something valuable in the effort.

PTs and OTs are experts at this part of the healing process and, in my experience, they as a group tend to be very lovely people — gentle, loving and caring, but ultimately forceful and wise about how to get patients to find profound healing powers dwelling deep down inside their traumatized bodies.

So yay for OTs ad PTs and thanks for doing everything you do.


Leave a Comment