Occupational therapy under the spotlight in new book

Occupational therapy under the spotlight in new book

With the growing elderly population and increasing numbers of troops returning home with the scars of conflict, occupational therapy has never been more in demand.

Now a new book from an Aberdeen academic explores the history of the profession and what can be learned from the roots of occupational therapy in the rehabilitation of patients today.

Dr Catherine Paterson, known as Irene, has spent the last 20 years researching the origins and development of occupational therapy in Scotland and has now published Opportunities not Prescriptions: The Development of Occupational Therapy in Scotland 1900−1960.

Little has been written about the growth of occupational therapy north of the border but Dr Paterson believes that an appreciation of the history of the profession has an important role to play in helping new occupational therapists understand why craftwork was so important in the profession’s early days.

Occupational therapists help those with medical conditions cope with illness or disability in order to enhance their ability to lead as full and as meaningful a life as possible. Dr Paterson trained at the Astley Ainslie Hospital from 1960−1963 and went on to become Principal of the Grampian School of Occupational Therapy, 1976−90, and Director of Occupational Therapy at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, 1990−2002.

She said: “It is almost 80 years since the Scottish Association of Occupational Therapists was formed, and over 70 years since the first course in occupational therapy in Scotland was started.

“In that time the profession has come a long way – my research shows that occupational therapists in the early days worked closely with enthusiastic holistic doctors concerned about the mental, social and spiritual needs, as well as the physical needs, of patients.

“Initially occupational therapy was based, although not exclusively on craft work, carefully selected and graded to enhance the patient’s physical, psychological and social abilities at a time when patients spent long periods of time in hospital.  Today there is a much greater emphasis on facilitating early discharge and support in the community.

“However, there is a view of the profession simply as getting people out of hospital as quickly as possible. For me, occupational therapy involves much more than this and I hope my research demonstrates that the lessons learned in the early years should not be forgotten.”

Dr Paterson stressed that she was not advocating a return to the days of basket weaving, but that meaningful occupation, including creative activities, relevant to today’s society have an important role to play in enhancing everyone’s health and well-being.

“While it is easy to dismiss the practises of the past and say things have moved on, the need to be creative is basic to everybody and I wanted those coming into the profession today to understand where we were coming from and that even in the early days there was a body of theory that lay behind the therapeutic aspect of creativity,” she added.

“This was recognised by psychiatrists in the days before effective medication and by physicians treating patients who had to spend months or even years in sanatoria to overcome tuberculosis.  It was particularly important during the two world wars, when the need to return injured servicemen to active service or to the civilian workforce was paramount. 

 “I hope my book will serve as a reminder of the results which can be achieved from the ‘early day’ methods and preserve some of what we learned for future generations.”

Opportunities not Prescriptions: The Development of Occupational Therapy in Scotland 1900−1960 is available from Aberdeen History of Medicine publications.