Overcoming Motivational Hurdles: Therapeutic Strategies for Engaging Older Adults

For physical, occupational, and speech therapists, finding ways to help patients stay motivated throughout a therapy program can be a big challenge, but it can be especially tricky when working with older adults. When you mix in comorbid conditions, mental health issues like depression, and the everyday aches and pains that come with aging, therapy goals can start to seem insurmountable for some seniors.

“The biggest job is finding out their ‘why’,” said Lauren Petry, a clinical consultant and nurse practitioner with EmpowerMe Wellness. “Why are they wanting to get healthier? What is their main goal in participating in PT, OT, or SLP?”

“One therapist I know was working with a patient to them to help them reduce falls,” she said. “But her biggest source of motivation was a desire to get in and out of car safely so she could go to the mall with her granddaughter.” The therapist was able to direct every therapy session around that desire. She started every session by asking herself the question, “How are we going to meet that need to get in and out of the car?”

Recognizing Progress: The Power of Celebrating Milestones in Patient Rehabilitation

It’s important to provide constant reminders about the patient’s primary goal, but it’s also key to celebrating the little victories along the way. “It’s hard to see our improvements day to day,” Lauren said, “but it can be really powerful to remind patients of where they were even a short time ago. By saying something like, ‘Remember three weeks ago, when you couldn’t stand up from a chair by yourself?’, you can make a person’s face light right up.”

Personalized Therapy: Tailoring Exercise Routines for Patient Engagement and Motivation

Finding exercises your patient enjoys doing goes a long way toward building participation. “If you don’t enjoy riding a stationary bike, you’re not going to feel very motivated to attend sessions, or to work hard while you’re there,” Lauren said. “That’s why it’s so important to listen to your patients and do your best to tailor their treatment to each individual.”

Effective Communication in Therapy: Aligning Patient Goals with Therapist Concerns for Optimal Progress and Well-Being

And of course, beyond just listening, therapists must also be ready to clearly express their concerns when it comes to a patient’s progress. “It’s all about meeting the resident where they’re at, and making sure you’re on the same page,” said Lauren. That should include both what they want to improve and also what you feel they need to work on to ensure their best possible health, comfort, and function going forward. If you’re worried about something, let them know — more often than not, that can serve as a wake-up call and motivate them to get moving.


In senior living, therapy goals can take months or even years to attain. So when a patient reaches a goal, be sure the celebration matches the occasion…but don’t let that lead to any false senses of security. Keep an eye out for any additional needs, and remind the patient that there may still be additional work to be done. Otherwise, it may be difficult to re-motivate them to begin the therapy process all over again.