How occupational therapists influence LTC design decisions

Kerrie Ramsdell is on a quest to change the way people think about occupational therapists, including those in the long-term care industry.

Ramsdell spends much of her spare time outside of her full-time position teaching at the Louisiana State University educating others that occupational therapists (OTs) are not just for rehab. Their knowledge, expertise and insight serve as an important tool in designing living spaces. Among those areas that could benefit from their counsel are LTC facilities wanting to edge ahead of their competition.

It’s a passion that emerged in 2005 when Ramsdell witnessed the restructuring process following Hurricane Katrina. As she watched New Orleans begin to rebuild, she was floored by the lack of conversation that surrounded issues such as accessibility for those with varying physical needs. She knew her role as an OT could help shape the design process to create better inclusion of all people.

A pediatric OT by trade, Ramsdell has now expanded her focus to the design and care of all stages of life. Ramsdell—now seven years later—is one of the champions of her industry, traveling to conferences to share her insight. She will be speaking at this spring’s Environments for Aging conference being held April 6-9.

“When you have to design your new space consider an occupational therapist because they are experts on how the environment contributes to function, particularly around the physical and sensory demands,” says Ramsdell, who serves as assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy at LSU’s health sciences center. “This person-environmental focus contributes to a holistic design that promotes overall mental and physical health and participation in order to live life to the fullest.”

OTs are often misunderstood as only working in rehab with patients or clients on activities of daily living skills. However, their training on health and disability-related issues through an individualized lens can help designers, administrators and policy-makers promote optimal environments for aging. OTs are trained to focus on a framework made up of the person, the environment and the occupational performance, which can be applied to healthcare design, Ramsdell says.

Carolyn Sithong, owner of Home For Life Design, is a fellow therapist and proponent of educating the industry on the value of including an OT in any design process. Sithong has seen designers and administrators in the LTC market increasingly reach out for her input.

“As an OT and an expert in environmental modifications, I feel very qualified to help communicate to these professions not only the value of opportunity to engage in occupation, but how it can be implemented, supported by the environment and measured to show quality of life,” says Sithong, who sees her work as a move to initiate culture change in long-term care. “You can take the principles of culture change, such as more available and a better variety of dining options, focus on the occupation of eating or meal preparation and create a beautiful kitchen and dining area that allows the resident to either participate in the cooking tasks or eat whenever they want, just like at home.”

Examples of how OTs can contribute to the design process are endless. A LTC facility, for instance, that wishes to give residents increased access to the outdoors for activities like gardening or visiting a family may want to focus the design of a courtyard on raised garden beds or wide walkways. OTs who are also well researched on the different design models can help guide the design process through consultation practices, especially if facilities are targeting a certain population like Alzheimer’s disease or mental health.

The role of an OT is to help individuals get back to the things they enjoy most out of life, whether that be gardening, reading or going to the gym to lift weights. That approach is no different when used in the design of LTC facilities. OTs are instrumental in helping LTC communities design spaces that allow their residents to enjoy life in an environment that feels like home.

Julie Thompson is a freelance writer based in Dayton, Ohio.

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