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AOTA and Rebuilding Together

Rebuilding Together and Occupational Therapy: A Win-Win Opportunity

By Corinne Yenny Richer, MS, OTR/L

Image of Corinne Yenny Richer

Rebuilding Together is a national nonprofit organization that relies on the power of volunteers to make it possible for low-income seniors, people with disabilities, or families with children to stay in their own homes.

My introduction to this organization came through another occupational therapist. My supervisor, Mary Becker-Omvig, OTR/L, serves on the board of the local affiliate in Howard County, Maryland. It was Mary who first suggested that the Howard County Rebuilding Together incorporate home modifications into the scope of repairs performed during their annual home-rebuilding day in April.

Rebuilding Together repairs and modifies environments, providing help with maintenance such as plumbing, electrical, roofing, and painting. As occupational therapists, we promote aging in place by considering not only the environment but also the person and the tasks or activities performed in that environment. This perspective doesn't attempt to modify or change the Rebuilding Together process and its focus on the physical and structural environment. It simply compliments and expands on it by adding the person-task dimension.

Sounds like the recipe for a good marriage right? Well it is, and just like a marriage, when it works, everyone is fulfilled.

I began my own volunteer experience in 2003, visiting homes accepted into program as part of a "home preview." During these visits, I noted accessibility and home modification needs that would enhance safety and independence. I also had the opportunity to get to know each homeowner and to use my occupational therapy knowledge of the person, task, and environment.

This resulted in recommendations on home modifications to the Rebuilding Together team, such as installing hand rails on stairways, grab bars in bathrooms, or lighting improvements. The goal was always to modify the home to enhance safety and independence and to facilitate everyday activities that were important to the homeowner such as meal preparation, bathing, and doing laundry and even leisure activities such as reading, gardening, or relaxing on the porch.

My first year ended with a presentation to the Howard County board on the benefits afforded by an occupational therapy perspective. The board was convinced—and they were open to expanding occupational therapy's role in their program.

My participation as a volunteer continued to evolve throughout the next year. It became apparent to both Mary and me that we needed more occupational therapy practitioners to ensure that each home would be assessed for home modifications from an occupational therapy perspective.

We decided to focus our efforts not on doing the previews ourselves but instead on finding and training other occupational therapists. We recruited eight occupational therapists with varied levels of experience in different practice settings and provided them with assistance as needed throughout the process. The experience was enriching for all of us and certainly offered me tremendous professional growth since I went from "doing" to teaching. As my experience illustrates, there are multiple ways of getting involved at a variety of levels.

Moreover, the time that I have spent with Rebuilding Together has provided me with invaluable insights about my profession, my relationship to my profession, and the power of collaborative partnerships.

Rebuilding Together benefits from expanding their program and process to include home modification, because it allows them to better reach their goal—enabling low-income homeowners to age in place.

Certainly, the homeowner benefits from this multidisciplinary approach because, as we all know, a fall in the tub is as likely as a leaky roof to force a homeowner to leave his or her treasured home and independence behind.

Of course, occupational therapy and occupational therapy practitioners benefit from this kind of partnership, too.

Building alliances with organizations such as Rebuilding Together helps raise awareness and understanding about occupational therapy in the wider community. It helps spread the word about occupational therapy, outside of the medical model. It's also a way for occupational therapists to get into the community and to get experience in the emerging practice area of home modifications.

It's a win-win situation for all involved.

Corinne Yenny Richer, MS, OTR/L, works as an occupational therapist for the Howard County Maryland's Office on Aging, where she conducts in home assessments of older adults living in the community. She has been helping promote a home modifications initiative at her local Rebuilding Together affiliate since 2003.


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