OT Students Lending Hands to Elderly


ST. LOUIS — Maryville University occupational therapy students are gaining valuable professional expertise in caring for individuals of all ages through community involvement. As part of their Occupational Therapy Evaluation class, fourth-year students will visit the homes of elderly persons November 12-14 to complete home safety assessments. Ashlyn Cunningham, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Maryville University, has organized the activity and others like it in an effort to expand students’ experience in occupational therapy assessment across the human lifespan.

The 28 OT students, in groups of four or five, will visit six elderly persons’ homes and use the Westmead Home Safety Assessment to examine and evaluate the risk of falling. The elderly are more susceptible to falls for many reasons: advancing age, vision problems, decreased grip strength or hip and knee weakness. The students may find dangers such as loose rugs on slippery floors, dim hallways or furniture located in precarious positions. The students then will make recommendations to improve home safety and prevent falls, such as the installation of night lights in dark areas or grab bars in bathrooms. “It gives students experience in doing this evaluation and it’s also a service for the community,” said Cunningham. The visits to elderly residents are facilitated by a contact in Cunningham’s church, which keeps a record of “shut-in” adults who often do not leave their homes.

The home visits are one of three community evaluation activities in which the class is involved. In previous years, students only conducted pre-schooler assessment but Cunningham wanted them to gain experience in areas across the human lifespan, so she started organizing other community projects. Accordingly, the students conducted an adult worker assessment in which they examined the movements of teachers working with children with special needs, in order to help the adults conduct their tasks in a safer manner. The students also have screened pre-schoolers for cognitive, language and motor skills, testing the children individually and referring them for further evaluation as necessary.

“I find that the students really enjoy the actual practical experience in the community more than the simulations in the classroom,” said Cunningham. Prior to Cunningham joining Maryville’s faculty in 2005, OT students assessed only pre-schoolers, and usually performed the tests on a child they knew in their family. This can be an unsound practice, however, because one can be easily biased and fail to administer the evaluation correctly, Cunningham remarked. “This gives them more practical experience of having to relate to somebody without knowing them personally, making it more challenging for the student,” she said.

Maryville University is a private institution offering approximately 50 undergraduate, seven master’s and two doctoral degree programs to 3,422 students. Ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s Best Colleges, Maryville University prepares its students for successful and meaningful careers. Among Maryville’s most recent graduates, 94 percent are employed or attending graduate school. Approximately 15,000 alumni work and live in the St. Louis region.