In the midst of wildfire crisis, occupational therapists provide tips for relief

American Occupational Therapy Association, Bethesda, MD…Occupational therapy practitioners are among the health professionals responding to help people participate in life activities during poor air quality caused by the Canadian wildfires, with the primary recommendation being to wear a mask.

The New York Times reported “Noxious wildfire smoke that has engulfed New York City and other parts of the Northeast this week was forecast to spread farther south on Thursday. By Friday, the worst pollution is expected to move west, away from the Northeast, as a stagnant lower pressure system that has been sending the smoke southward this week changes direction, the National Weather Service said.” 

To provide assistance to existing clients and to spread information to affected populations, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) spoke with some occupational therapy practitioners for tips on environmental modifications to help with the activities of daily living  (ADLs) through this unusual crisis. 

AOTA president Dr. Alyson Stover said, “Environmental modifications and adaptations is our distinct intervention. We can adapt and modify any environment and recommend how to navigate it right away.” 

The rapid spread of the particulate matter can have a profound effect on people’s work, school, and personal lives and cause serious public health effects. Occupational therapy practitioners have responded quickly to applying their skills in adaptation to assist as best as possible their clients, communities, and families, as well as themselves.

Dr. Carol Lambdin-Pattavina of the University of New England has been a licensed and registered occupational therapist for over 20 years. In response to the wildfire effect blanketing areas of the northeast, she has some simple recommendations. 

  • Check the air quality index before leaving the safety of your home particularly if you have a chronic health condition such as asthma or COPD.

  • If you must leave your home don an n-95 mask and don’t stay outdoors for extended periods of time.

  • Use air purifiers in the home to help with the potential for poor-quality air seeping in.

  • If an air purifier isn’t an option then dampen and roll up towels and place them in the gap between exterior doors and windows.

  • Make sure that you have all of your medications such as inhalers, and medications for nebulizers available, and ask the pharmacy if those can be delivered if you are running low.

  • Being indoors can limit physical activity so engage in home exercises such as chair yoga, walking your interior steps if you have them, or playing physical games indoors as space permits while still following any precautions from your doctor if you have any physical limitations.

  • Being indoors can also make us feel isolated. If you are prone to loneliness or experience a mental health challenge, stay connected. Ways of staying connected include calling or face timing friends, family, and supporters, engaging in online supportive communities, and even accessing warm lines if you are struggling due to having to stay home.

Pamela Toto, PhD, OTR/L, BCG, FAOTA, a Professor and Director of the Doctor of Clinical Science in Occupational Therapy Program at the University of Pittsburgh, adds “We are not only experts in understanding the need for meaningful occupation to maintain health, but we are also adept at modifying the task and/or the environment to ensure that still occurs.”

Long-term and short-term exposure to fine particles can cause:

  • Premature death, especially due to cardiovascular effects

  • Non-fatal cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, as well as increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for congestive heart failure and reduced blood supply to the heart

  • Respiratory effects, such as asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, and reduced lung function and development

Mainly, practitioners said they have focused on maintaining a sense of routine and well-being despite all the rapid challenges encountered.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy practitioners focus on the things you want and need to do in your daily life. Occupational therapy intervention uses everyday life activities (occupations) to promote health, well-being, and your ability to participate in the important activities in your life. This includes any meaningful activity that a person wants to accomplish, including taking care of yourself and your family, working, volunteering, going to school, among many others.

Occupational therapy services typically include:

  • An evaluation made just for you that lets us know your history, life experiences, and your interests. We call this your occupational profile, and it tells us what values and activities are important to you during this conversation.

  • An intervention plan that is unique to you to improve your ability to perform daily activities and reach your goals,

  • An outcomes evaluation to make sure that the goals you set with your occupational therapy practitioner are being met.

For more information or to speak with an occupational therapy practitioner on this issue, contact Jennifer Rignani, AOTA media relations at praota@aota.org or 412-977-5795. 

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 230,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. Occupational therapy practitioners facilitate participation in everyday living for people of all ages. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in North Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, visit www.aota.org.

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