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Working at CSU

Promoting quality of life of older adults with neurodegenerative dementias

July 3, 2013

Wendy Wood, head of CSU's Department of Occupational Therapy, possesses a caring for older adults that comes not only from a wealth of professional education and research, but also personal experience seeking to imbue in her loved ones a sense of well-being during long-term care.

"My dad lived his last nine years in a one bedroom apartment in an assisted living facility in Youngstown, Ohio. He slept in his and my mom's old bed, got his clothes out of their old dresser, lounged in his old easy chair," Wood said.

Pictures of family filled her father's apartment's walls, and his exquisite china birds, which he had collected over many years, were scattered about the room. The most striking detail that had been relocated to the apartment was a mahogany dining room chair that sat next to the TV where Wood's dad could see it from his easy chair. "Years previously, my mother had needlepointed backs to what had been a collection of eight chairs. Each needlepoint was of a bird, some matching those of species in my dad's china collection. The stunning red cardinal was perched in my father's final home," Wood said.

While the facility her dad was located in had a skilled nursing wing, Wood and her sister worried constantly that their dad would be forced to leave his apartment if his function significantly declined, that being the facility's policy. Should their dad's health deteriorate, he'd be moved into a tiny sterile room with few tangible or meaningful symbols of his life, living with a rotating series of strangers. "We knew of other assisted living residents, some of whom my dad had befriended and visited in the nursing wing, who had had to make this heart-wrenching move. We did not want this same fate to befall our father," Wood said.

Her dad never moved. He ended up peacefully passing away in his apartment with Wood, her sister and a devoted certified nursing assistant by his side. "A few days before his death, he was still playing simple card games, still putting pieces into a simple jigsaw puzzle, still greeting others with a wave and smile, still trying to tell a joke or two," Wood said. "All this despite the fact that he was, by then, expressively aphasic and extremely cognitively impaired owing to the cumulative impact of numerous small strokes over nearly two decades; in other words, my dad had suffered for a long, long time from multi-infarct dementia."

Conceptual practice helps guide therapists

Today, Wood's research is focused on promoting the everyday quality of life of older adults with Alzheimer's disease and related neurodegenerative dementias who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Currently she is collaborating with six other expert occupational therapists in the area of dementia care to develop a conceptual practice that can guide the work of occupational therapists in long term care facilities.

Wood said her first interest in pursuing this research arose from working many years as an occupational therapist in nursing homes. "Over time I came to realize how much I loved working with, and how much I and other occupational therapists could help, long term residents who had serious cognitive impairments owing to Alzheimer's or some other dementia," Wood said. "In particular, I came to see that whether through one-to-one interventions, consultative work or ongoing collaboration with paid caregivers and family members, OTs could make an enormous difference in helping residents with dementia participate in meaningful activities and experience emotional well-being across the day."

As a result of her research, Wood has developed a conceptual practice model designed to guide the interventions and clinical reasoning process of occupational therapists who work in long term care settings, specifically targeting OT interventions for residents who will live the rest of their lives in those settings owing to the severity of their cognitive and other impairments.

"The model is premised on the view that, even in the end stages of dementia, people can experience relative well-being," Wood said.

Contact: Gretchen Gerding
Phone: (970) 491-5182