Shari Youchoff didn’t start out in her career as an occupational therapist thinking she would work in a senior living community. But today, she couldn’t picture herself anywhere else.

“The first time I held hands with a resident in their new ‘home’ environment,” Shari said, “the first time I made eye contact in those tearful moments, and spoke words of encouragement to help ease their discomfort, fear, and anxiety…that’s when I started feeling a connection with my residents that keeps me going every day.”

Shari’s early career trajectory led her to work in a number of diverse settings, from acute care and early intervention services to pediatrics and home health services. During that time, she acquired a wealth of experience, but she was eager for something new.

“I wanted to explore an unfamiliar area and try a skilled nursing facility setting,” Shari said. The opportunity to work with seniors as a career pathway had piqued her interest. Little did she know at the time that this change would transform her entire perspective on therapy services.

“Finding and exploring ways to provide meaningful sessions, understanding what puts the ‘wind in residents’ sails’ — it all gave me a deeper motivation to be creative with therapy services,” she says.

During the onset of COVID, senior living communities saw the need for increased health and safety regulations. Shari saw this as an opportunity to get more creative in her work.

“The residents we worked with would sit at a table or in their rooms just overwhelmed by their depression and loneliness,” she said. “It literally became a matter of life or death for myself and my fellow therapists to implement occupational therapy services with a fresh and creative mind. We took it upon ourselves to give each and every senior a reason to live – a reason to get up and move and live life to the fullest, despite the circumstances.”

Creating connections.

In senior care, you form purposeful and meaningful relationships with residents and their family members, working together to navigate the changes and challenges that come their way.

“I had one resident who fought everyone,” Shari said. “She was constantly hitting her hands on the table and resisting any attempts to calm her. I learned in occupational therapy school to look at the whole person — mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually — as well as their environmental context. So I made the effort to learn more about her.”

When the resident was first admitted to the community, her family completed a Life Story interview. “From that, I learned that she was Catholic. So I found her a rosary. A caregiver immediately sat with her and said the Lord’s Prayer. The resident started to recite the prayers with that caregiver, and it brought about a new bond between them. A peaceful demeanor came upon her, and everyone around her.”

Serving as an advocate.

As a therapist in senior living care, you can be the voice for seniors who are unable to make their needs known.

“It has been vital for me to learn about each and every resident in the community — to learn to be open-minded and to look past a person’s outer parts and embrace their humanity,” said Shari. To better understand the needs of the residents she serves, Shari works with the community’s caregivers and staff to find out:

  • Which residents are experiencing the most challenges?
  • Which residents are refusing care?
  • Which residents are at risk of elopement?

Finding community.

From residents, to staff, to family members, to other therapists — the social circle you build as a therapy provider in senior living is different from most rehab settings.

“I have learned so many treatment approaches by working with residents and getting to know their interests and abilities,” says Shari. “But it’s almost as crucial to learn how to work with other therapists and caregivers — especially those with different personality types and skill sets. By helping your colleagues understand how their skills, talents, and abilities fit into a larger picture, you can create a better environment for your residents and for the people who work with them.”

Working as a therapist in a senior living setting very quickly becomes so much more than providing therapy. It offers opportunities to form personal, meaningful connections with both residents and other therapists, building bonds that are deep and lasting. A collaborative relationship between therapists and residents can do more than help you better understand the needs of the people you serve — it can inspire everyone involved to feel part of something bigger than themselves.

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