What is occupational therapy? How is it different than physical therapy, and how can it help you or a loved one age in place?

I recently sat down with occupational therapist Beth Locke of Quality Independence Therapy to answer these questions and more.

Physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) seem to be closely related. How would you describe the difference between them?

Generally speaking, I would say that PT focuses on mobility and OT focuses on function. In some settings, a PT addresses the lower body and the OT address the upper body. But these answers are limiting to the true scope of both practices. Sometimes the difference depends upon the setting the therapies are performed in as well as the individual therapist’s skill sets.

There can be a lot of overlap between the two practices, but I would say that OT is a bit more broad in that we are addressing mental health, processing and cognition, and social participation skills. Our field extends into a person’s ability to participate in their various roles, routines, and habits. Anything that helps them succeed with these is fair game for us to treat.

The mission of Griswold Home Care includes giving people the freedom to stay in their own homes as they age. How does occupational therapy help with that same mission?

Occupational therapists are highly skilled at figuring out the root cause of why a task is difficult for a person. Once I understand the root cause, I can then provide “adaptations” to make that task easier for that person’s needs.

I may address a client’s difficulties through strengthening, balance training, or coordination training. I might recommend adaptive equipment. Therapy can also include training both my clients and their caregivers on ways to protect their joints, decrease their pain, and conserve their energy.

You provide your therapy in the client’s personal home. What are the benefits of having OT in the home rather than going to a therapy office?

OT addresses activities of daily living. Most of these activities occur in or around the home. It is much more effective to train a person how to perform a task in the natural environment where that task occurs. Therapy in an office may be able to treat some of the underlying issues such as pain, strength, and balance, however frequently the best therapy is to perform the task itself.

Can you give me some examples of how you were able to assist in a way in the home that you couldn’t have done in a therapy office?

Sure. A big part of what I do is recommending adaptive equipment such as toilet seats and shower seats. It is imperative to see the actual toilet and shower that we’re adapting to know which device to recommend. Once the equipment is obtained, it needs to be assessed for proper set up and safe usage. Some of my treatment sessions include taking clients through their activities of daily living, so I may assist a client in actually taking a shower.

Some of my clients want to get back to certain leisure activities that they previously enjoyed. So, if someone wants to get back to sewing, I will make sure that they can access their sewing machine and materials and can use the machine safely. None of that can be performed in a clinic.

What are some of the diagnoses you have worked with the most as an occupational therapist?

I treat all diagnoses, but I would say I have probably worked the most with patients with chronic illnesses such as COPD, heart failure, diabetes, etc. I have also worked with plenty of stroke victims, joint replacements, spine patients, and patients with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS as well.

Would you say you have a primary focus in your therapy – what you want to accomplish when you work with a client?

My only focus is maximizing quality of life and independence, but what that looks like for each client varies greatly.

What should one of your clients expect during a session?

My clients should expect that I will ask a lot of questions in order to get a clear picture of their needs. They can expect that I will truly listen to their answers and respond to their needs. But again, what that looks like is different for everyone. While I may be prescribing exercises for one patient, I may be prescribing relaxation techniques for the next. I may be assisting one client with a shower and helping another swing a golf club. Even I don’t know what to expect sometimes!


Why did you decide to become an occupational therapist?

I was raised by parents who worked with computers, sitting at desks all day. I knew that wasn’t for me. I had a few sports injuries in my youth and went through physical therapy. I liked the fact that the therapists were moving around and interacting with people all day. When I went to college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. My college offered an occupational therapy program which sounded ideal. It was probably one of the best decisions of my life.

And from there, how did you get into home health?

I have worked in a lot of settings in my 18 years of experience including hospitals, residential treatment centers and schools. I began taking short term assignments in various parts of the country working in hospitals and nursing homes but ultimately fell in love with home health. I’ve been working with patients in their homes now for over a decade. More recently I opened my own practice so that I can treat patients the way that I see fit.

What do you enjoy the most about being an occupational therapist?

I truly love helping people. I am a people person and I love going into homes and learning the stories of the people I am working with, their families and histories. I gain personal satisfaction from being able to bring joy into people’s lives whether it’s as simple as being a listening ear or by helping them take a shower for the first time in months or by getting them back to participating in their hobbies that they didn’t think they’d ever get back to.

What is something unique you bring to your therapy?

I’d say my focus on quality of life is a bit unique. Most therapists want to (and do) improve quality of life but are limited by the many demands of their job (productivity standards, high caseloads, insurance reimbursement concerns) to be able to truly take their patients as far as I can.

Thank you so much for you time. Before we end, is there anything personal you would like to share about yourself, your family, or your hobbies?

I am a wife and mom to a daughter and son (and dog). I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland and following several years living in Monterey, California, I landed here in Wilmington about 3 1/2 years ago (and plan to stay). My current activities include helping coach my daughter in her sports and serving on my neighborhood social committee. I am also a former athlete and have done a marathon and 2 half ironman races.

Learn more about Beth and her services in the Wilmington, Hampstead, Surf City and Leland areas.