Occupational Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease: Tips and Tricks

How to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms with occupational therapy

Parkinson’s disease (PD) can introduce all types of challenges into your daily life, including those that interfere with simple activities that you used to take for granted – such as eating, writing, and using a cell phone. Sometimes medication changes can help you move more easily, but sometimes that is not enough.

What is occupational therapy and how can it help with Parkinson’s disease?

Occupational therapy (OT) is a branch of rehabilitative medicine that focuses on the performance of the activities required for independent daily living. like those mentioned above and others.

Occupational therapists who specialize in PD are experts in devising ways to help you maximize your movement and quality of life. In the past, we interviewed PD occupational therapists who specialized in:

Unlike physical therapists who help with improving body movements, as well as strengthening balance, body alignment and range of motion, occupational therapists focus on the activities and tasks of daily life to promote independence and productivity.  Plenty of people with PD will work with both types of therapists as part of their treatment plan.

Tips and tricks from an occupational therapist that can help increase independence during daily activities

Lisa Carson, OTD, OTR/L is an occupational therapist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who works closely with our APDA Greater St. Louis Chapter. She has a lot of expertise in treating people with PD, helping them to achieve increased independence. If you are interested in working with an OT, be sure to speak to your neurologist about it and ask for a recommendation. Your local APDA Chapter may also be able to refer you to an Occupational Therapist in your area.

Recently, I was able to ask Dr. Carson about tips and tricks for people with PD who are having difficulty with some basic activities such as eating, preparing meals, writing, using a keyboard, and using a cell phone. Here are her suggestions:

Using eating utensils designed to help with Parkinson’s tremors

The first thing to assess is the cause of your difficulty. Is your grip not strong enough? Is your tremor interfering with eating? There are many utensils that are on the market to help people with PD eat more independently. These include built-up utensils that have a wide circumference to hold onto, weighted utensils, and stabilizing utensils, which contain sensors that detect the force and direction of a tremor and move to counteract the tremor. My recommendation as to which is best really depends on the person. Weighted utensils can work well for some people with tremor. My favorite weighted utensils are manufactured in stainless steel by Vive Health. They have enough weight in them to really work. Stabilizing spoons can be expensive and they don’t solve the problem for everyone.

Positioning is an important thing to consider. Are you trying to eat in your recliner chair or in bed? If so, you will probably find it difficult to get food to your mouth when lying back. The best position for eating is sitting in a supportive chair at a kitchen table. Occupational therapists can assess your positioning and find the best setup for you.

Preparing meals and navigating the kitchen

Consider where things are located in your kitchen. You might want to reorganize or rearrange things in your kitchen so that frequently needed items are the easiest to access. Plan ahead and break down the steps of your meal prep so that it is more manageable.

There are lots of tricks and tips that OTs have to help in the kitchen such as sliding heavy pots of water along the countertop instead of carrying them or sitting at the kitchen table to chop vegetables instead of standing. If you enjoy cooking, there are likely lots of suggestions an OT can make to help you be safer and more independent in the kitchen.

Writing

Just like eating, be aware of your positioning when you are trying to write.  Make sure that you are sitting in a comfortable chair at a desk that is at a good height for you. Just like eating utensils, there are many different types of writing utensils on the market such as pens that are weighted or have a built-up grip. Again, the best type of writing utensils for PD will depend on the individual.

There is some evidence that practice of handwriting can improve legibility in Parkinson’s disease, so if writing is particularly difficult for you, consider occupational therapy that is focused on handwriting. An OT can show you hand exercises to build up and maintain strength and flexibility that supports legible writing.

Using an adaptive keyboard

There are adaptive keyboards and specific software programs that can help to decrease typing mistakes and make the process of typing on a computer easier. There are also speech-to-text options which allow you to dictate what you want to write and eliminate the need for typing altogether. An OT consultation can help set you up with these options.

One trick that I recommend frequently which helps people use their computer is changing the cursor setting so that it tracks more slowly across the screen when you use your mouse. Slowing down the cursor can help make it easier to see and control.  In addition, you can change the sensitivity of your mouse to make it easier to control.

Enabling a cell phone’s accessibility settings

Smartphones have many accessibility settings. An iPhone, for example, has numerous features for people with vision, motor, hearing and learning challenges. Click on the Settings icon and select Accessibility to see all the options.

Experiment with all the different settings that can help make using your smartphone easier. For example, you can set up your smartphone so that it responds to voice commands. You can also use speech-to-text on many smartphones or take advantage of the word prediction software. You can set up your cell phone so that it will ignore multiple touches (which can happen if you have a tremor) or respond only to the first or last place that you touch. You may have to try different settings to see which one or combination best helps you use your cell phone.

Always remember, slowing down and avoiding multitasking while trying to use your phone can help minimize mistakes.

The above is just a sampling of what an OT can help you with. OTs can also help you better navigate additional daily tasks like dressing, bathing, and more.

Tips and Takeaways

  • Occupational therapists can help you maximize your independence by helping you more easily perform tasks of daily living.
  • An occupational therapist can give you tricks and tips to optimize your ability to write, type, and use a cell phone, as well as prepare and eat meals, and many other activities of daily living.
  • Ask your neurologist for a referral to occupational therapy if one or more of these tasks has become difficult for you.
  • For more information about the benefits of occupational therapy for Parkinson’s disease, you can view our Let’s Keep Moving With APDA webinar featuring a great discussion between a physical therapist and occupational therapist about how OT can help people with PD.

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Dr. Rebecca Gilbert

APDA Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer

Dr. Gilbert received her MD degree at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York and her PhD in Cell Biology and Genetics at the Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences. She then pursued Neurology Residency training as well as Movement Disorders Fellowship training at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Prior to coming to APDA, she was an Associate Professor of Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center. In this role, she saw movement disorder patients, initiated and directed the NYU Movement Disorders Fellowship, participated in clinical trials and other research initiatives for PD and lectured widely on the disease.

A Closer Look ArticlePosted in Living with Parkinson's

DISCLAIMER: Any medical information disseminated via this blog is solely for the purpose of providing information to the audience, and is not intended as medical advice. Our healthcare professionals cannot recommend treatment or make diagnoses, but can respond to general questions. We encourage you to direct any specific questions to your personal healthcare providers.