Staying happy while staying home: Lessons from occupational therapy


Human beings have a biological need to participate in meaningful activities every day. Now more than ever, Canadians need a new blueprint for their daily routines.

Canada’s occupational therapists are experts in helping people of all ages do the things they want and need to do — the occupations of daily life that bring meaning, joy and health to individuals and communities alike. Occupational therapists help people solve the problems that interfere with activities that are important to them.

Over 100 years ago, early occupational therapist were supporting people with mental health issues through the arts and crafts movement, assisting refugees in the settlement movement, and later, meeting the needs of soldiers returning from the Second World War. Then, and now, occupational therapy’s focus on establishing and supporting habits and routines is essential to engaging in occupations and sustaining health. Routines, familiar occupations, and learning new occupations help create structure and balance among work, rest, and play regardless of age or ability. Events like the current pandemic disrupt occupations and pose a risk to health.

Canadians are experiencing occupational disruption on an unprecedented scale. Calls to stay at home, maintain a physical distance from others when going out for essential purposes, or self-isolating after possible exposure to the virus have deprived people of their usual routines. Elderly members of our communities are isolated from their families, sadly left alone to experience the stress of COVID-19. Loneliness is a key contributor to illness, part of a complex combination of social, economic, and biological factors leading to loss of occupations and poor health. The following four practices will help to maintain function, health and well-being while staying at home.

Establish a daily and weekly routine. Routines provide structure and purpose and calm anxiety. There is a limit to how much time we can spend in our jammies, streaming movies, or re-organizing the kitchen drawers. Sit down with a tablet (paper or electronic) and sketch out a daily routine. Wake up at your usual time, make breakfast, enjoy a shower without the need to rush to work or school. Get dressed in real clothes. Map out a week so you have a good mix of different activities. Working/learning from home? Set up a space and dedicated time for work or school. Get a good night’s sleep: Re-kindle the relationship with pillow and bed, but leave it every morning.

Keep moving. Go for a walk (stay in your neighbourhood and keep two arm’s length away from others). If you live in an apartment and cannot get outside, there are terrific online groups for yoga, plyometrics, meditation, spinning, and body-weight exercise.

Occupational exploration. This is a time to explore new occupations. For those with Internet access, the world is still open. Cultural centres, museums, and universities are offering free courses and cultural experiences. Learn a new language, sing along to a Broadway show, tour the Guggenheim or Louvre virtually, or watch free concerts from popular artists or classical ensembles. Share photographs from a daily walk on social media. Get the garden ready for planting. Call, text, write friends and family. Write a letter to future generations describing the experience. Physical distance is important to control the spread of the virus but social connections are critical to preserve emotional and mental health. Make a list of all that stuff you wish you had time for, and check off some in the weeks ahead.

Track your outcomes. Lack of participation in a range of habitual, necessary, and joyful occupations can increase the risk of poor physical and mental health. Keep a log. Share it with others and “show and tell” how you are spending your time. Be kind to yourself and adapt your schedule as needed to ensure satisfying occupations remain part of your repertoire.

Pioneer occupational therapists championed habits as critical to participation in life, no matter what adversity a person or community faced. Despite the upheaval created by daily public health announcements, it is possible to create a routine and develop habits to take care of yourself and others, doing activities that sustain your well-being.

Authored by: Catherine Backman and Skye Barbic are professor and assistant professor, respectively, at the department of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of B.C.

Dr. Backman is a Senior Research Scientist at Arthritis Research Canada and
President of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists.

Dr. Barbic is Head Scientist at Foundry B.C., a provider of integrated youth wellness services and a scientist with CHÉOS.

Article first published by the Vancouver Sun Op Ed
Publishing date: March 28, 2020

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