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Veterans Health Administration

Occupational Therapy: Helping Vets Live an Independent Life

Man adjusting equipment on a man's electric wheelchair

Eric Lipton, Palo Alto VA Occupational Therapist, and Veteran Martin Jacobson
VA Photo by Joseph Matthews

“He Taught Us All A Lesson.”

Occupational therapy (OT) is a discipline that aims to promote health by enabling people to perform meaningful and purposeful activities.

As the largest health care system in the nation, VA is the single largest employer of occupational therapists. According to Eric Lipton of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, the primary goal of VA’s occupational therapists is to help Veterans optimize their functional performance in areas that are meaningful to their lives.

Lipton is currently Occupational Therapy Supervisor for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. Prior to becoming supervisor, he primarily worked with Veterans in Community Living Centers (CLC).

Occupational Therapists use a holistic approach and address activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing and grooming, as well as more advanced activities such as cooking, shopping, driving, parenting, and returning to work.

They are skilled at assessing performance, analyzing the components of tasks, and helping to improve performance through adapting the way a person is performing the task, the use of equipment, or by adapting the environment.

“I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”

Help for Vets of All Ages

VA occupational therapists work with individuals who suffer from a mentally, physically, developmentally or emotionally disabling condition by utilizing treatments that develop, recover, or maintain clients’ activities of daily living.

VA works with thousands of Veterans of all ages.

The therapist helps clients not only to improve their basic motor functions and reasoning abilities, but also to compensate for permanent loss of function.

Mr. Lipton describes an example of just one of his patients:

“One Veteran had Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease).

“I needed to address different areas as his disease progressed. The initial focus was on retraining for activities of daily living, and eventually became how to maximize his comfort as he was dying. The Veteran went from utilizing a walker to a scooter, and eventually to a highly adapted power wheelchair.

“When it got to the point that he could only move his head, OT treatment shifted to maintaining his ability to safely operate his power wheelchair independently, keeping him well positioned, emphasizing wound prevention, preventing his body from becoming contracted, and pain management.

“I will never forget his spirit as he participated in life until the end. The image I remember most is seeing him with a big smile, dancing by just moving his head to the beat. He taught us all a lesson how to live life to the fullest, and I feel OT helped to facilitate that.”

Dedicated to his profession, Lipton explains his commitment to helping Vets overcome some of the hurdles life has given them.

“I have had the great honor to work with Veterans who represent a very large span of American history, including Veterans from World War I all the way to the current Global War on Terror. They have made huge sacrifices that often have long-term consequences to their health.

“That’s why the VA Health Care System is so important. We really understand the specialized needs of our Veterans.”

Wide Variety of Occupational Therapy Treatments

The focus of occupational therapy treatment in a VA Community Living Center (CLC) varies greatly, depending on the needs of the Veteran being served. Occupational Therapists in this setting may work with a patient following a stroke to be able to safely and independently dress, bathe, and cook so they can return home.

Another Veteran may have a spinal cord injury and live at the CLC. Their occupational therapy treatment may be focused on the operation of a power wheelchair, preventing pressure ulcers, and maintaining strength and range of motion. Or a Veteran may have Alzheimer’s disease and the focus may be to keep the Veteran safe and as functional as possible by adapting the environment or through staff or caregiver training.

Lipton feels “lucky” to be working with Vets.

“My favorite work setting was working on a unit that specialized in gero-psychiatry (treating mental illness in the elderly). I felt lucky to be working there. It was a great opportunity to work with Veterans who still want to contribute to the world.

“I led therapeutic groups and the patients were fully engaged in the activities. It was energizing for both the patients and staff. I consistently walked away thinking, ‘I love working here. I can’t believe I get paid to do this.’

“I would love to see the profession of occupational therapy, the VA Health Care System, and health care in general, focus more on preventive health and wellness. We can dramatically impact quality of life by teaching people how to engage in healthier lifestyle habits. Occupational Therapists are well suited to doing this, as we take a holistic approach when working with people.”

April is Occupational Therapy Month, a perfect time to reflect on the work VA does to help Veterans live a full and productive life.