Those in physical therapy jobs have the unique opportunity to work with a wide variety of clients. This is especially true if you work in travel therapy jobs. For example, physical therapists taking assignments in California might heal surfers, while those in big cities may see more patients on an average day.
No matter where you take an assignment, though, you'll likely have senior clients. Your services are extremely helpful to this age group, especially older adults with dementia. Learn more about the the connection between dementia and physical therapy:
Dementia in older adults
Forms of dementia are fairly common among the elderly population. According to the Alzheimer's Association, approximately 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's disease, and this condition is the sixth-leading cause of death in the nation.
With the widespread prevalence of dementia comes myriad health complications. According to the Mayo Clinic, dementia can lead to memory loss and communication difficulties, in addition to physical impairments like coordination and motor function issues. This translates to challenges with daily living activities like dressing, bathing, eating and taking medications. It can also pose safety concerns for seniors living alone.
Additionally, people with dementia are at a greater risk for falls, according to the Alzheimer's Society, and this complication brings concerns of its own. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that falls can lead to anything from broken bones to head trauma. Falls are actually the most common cause of traumatic brain injury in seniors, making it crucial to reduce the risk of this incident in dementia patients.
Fortunately, as someone working in physical therapy jobs, you can can apply unique interventions that can protect seniors' well-being and help older adults maintain their independence for longer.
The relationship between physical therapy and dementia
Because of physical therapy's unique ability to enhance motor function and general mobility, you can play an integral role in a dementia patient's treatment plan. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7 percent of physical therapy jobs were in nursing and residential care facilities. That only accounts for a portion of the seniors these professionals assist.
Much research supports that physical therapy can prove beneficial to seniors. A study published in the journal Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation determined that increased use of both physical and occupational therapy can help physical function in those residing in long-term care facilities. Older adults with dementia may benefit even more than the general senior population.
"Those in physical therapy jobs can guide seniors through safe exercise."
A meta-analysis published in the journal Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation reviewed 30 trials that evaluated the effects of exercise on seniors ages 65 and older with cognitive impairment. Through this review, the study authors determined that exercise training offered several benefits for the 2,020 study subjects, including enhanced physical and cognitive function and an uptick in positive behavior. While the research didn't mention physical therapy specifically, it certainly has implications for this type of intervention. Individuals in physical therapy jobs can guide seniors through safe and effective exercise to bring about these advantages.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society supports similar benefits. In this trial, researchers split 319 community-dwelling seniors into two groups: One that received occupational and physical therapy treatments while the others received no treatment. Specifically, the intervention included muscle strengthening, fall-recovery tactics and balance exercises, among other strategies. The study determined that these therapies improve function and reduce mortality risks in vulnerable older adults.
The facts are clear: Physical therapy can help older adults, especially those with dementia. The question then becomes, how can those in physical therapy jobs better treat dementia patients?
Considerations for working with dementia clients in physical therapy jobs
As the American Physical Therapy Association explained, physical therapists must take a patient's health history, review his or her current health status and perform tests to spot problems. This is all preparatory for creating an individualized rehabilitation plan.
While each client has different needs and no two plans will be exactly the same, physical therapists may benefit from targeting dementia-specific risks across the board. For example, a study published in the Australian Journal of Physiotherapy found that progressive resistance training was more effective at building strength and improving balance than flexibility exercises. If you're taking an assignment where you must help seniors with dementia combat fall risks, improving balance with resistance training may be the best method of care.
An excerpt from the American College of Sports Medicine's "Exercise Management for Persons With Chronic Diseases and Disabilities-4th Edition" offered more guidance on working with dementia patients in physical therapy jobs. Tactics must stem beyond just creating effective exercises. For instance, the excerpt mentioned that memory loss in Alzheimer's patients may cause them to forget to perform at-home exercises. Meanwhile, dementia-related depression could cause them to quit the program altogether.
It is crucial for older adults to continue with physical therapy to promote better function and independence, and as a physical therapist, you can take steps to encourage them to continue participation. You can collaborate with the patient's other caregivers and provide these professionals with materials to help the client with at-home exercises. Appointments should also be enjoyable for the senior, so opt for strategies that play on their interests. For example, swimmers might enjoy water aerobics, while others could have fun dancing to upbeat music.
The excerpt also warned of the sudden angry outbursts common among late-stage Alzheimer's patients, who will often forget the episode occurred right after it's over. This is where patience is key – this is a symptom of the disease and not a reflection on you. Consider if the patient would be more comfortable with a loved one present, or speak with his or her family to identify preventative strategies.
As someone working in physical therapy jobs, you hold the key to a happy, healthy lifestyle for dementia patients.