Debora A. Davidson, PhD, OTR/L, Clinical Occupational Therapy Editor

Debora A. Davidson, PhD, OTR/L, Clinical Occupational Therapy Editor

Since starting my private practice, I have had many opportunities to explain what I do to business people who work outside of healthcare. Many times their reactions run something like this, “It takes a special person to do that kind of work,” or “That is so wonderful!” While it’s fun to be considered special or wonderful, I am not really generous or self-sacrificing. I am actually taking excellent care of myself when I work with my clients.

While healthcare providers are not giving strictly for its own sake (we are paid for our work), my experience tells me most of us have selected and pursued our careers as much for emotional satisfaction as for the salary earned. Research indicates that when we do things for others we are healthier, less likely to suffer depression, more socially connected and even live longer.  Great fringe benefits for OTs! Read more about the benefits at http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/altruism/definition.

We can apply these findings to our therapy. Providing opportunities for our clients to give to others transforms them from the recipients of care to being empowered to provide care — a dynamic shift that can plant seeds of self-determination and pro-social behavior.

When I worked in child and adolescent psychiatry, we arranged a secret Christmas gift exchange among patients.  They each drew the name of a patient not located on their unit, and made a small gift for that person in OT.  The therapists provided ideas about the gift recipient’s interests and preferences, so the gifts could be personalized. Although the items were simple, the excitement of the gift givers and recipients was a joy to watch. Children who had previously shown little attention to detail or quality were newly invested in doing their best work as they created a gift for another child.

For middle and older adults, participation in volunteer activities can satisfy the need to pass skills and wisdom on to younger generations. Participating in volunteer work can provide adolescents and adults with self-confidence, improved work habits and a sense of meaning in their lives. Adding an altruistic purpose to a therapeutic activity can increase the patient’s sense of purpose and teamwork, enhance motivation and sustained performance, and improve outcomes.  Rather than simply folding towels, why not have the patient fold receiving blankets for the hospital’s newborns? Rather than simply baking cookies for practice, why not plan to serve them at a group meeting, or wrap and give some to a local service center?

Like all health professionals, OT practitioners provide care and service to people in times of need.  By doing so, we enjoy the emotional and health benefits that doing for others provides, while also earning a living.  Through a little forethought and creativity, we can harness the power of altruism to benefit our clients.

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