Life is For Service ⟩
December 3, 2023, by Brigid
During my sophomore year of college, I spent every Friday afternoon in the sunroom of a long-term care facility in New York City. While the light would fight its way through smudged windows, the older woman who I had gotten to know would describe to me the way the sun would fill her fourth-floor East Village walk-up and bounce off the glass vases and shelves. Since the day she had fallen two years prior, she had not once been back. At ninety-four years old, she now required a wheelchair, shared a small room with another resident who played their TV at maximum volume, and had few possessions apart from a single book and a blanket she had knit while at the facility.
Though not obvious to me at first, I eventually came to understand the power of what I could offer at that point in my life: companionship. I could help with the everyday tasks the doctors, nurses, and therapists often could not attend to: reaching the high-up shelves, remaking the beds, transporting residents to the horticulture and arts classes, and providing a consistent presence that may, in some small part, diminish the profound social isolation that so often accompanies chronic pain, illness, disability, and institutionalization.
Still, I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more useful and effective. I wanted to help the residents not just survive in their present state, but to thrive. While acknowledging the physical, mental, or structural barriers, I knew there had to be a better way to design each resident’s schedule, skills, and space to better serve them as an individual and respect their human dignity.
This desire to think outside the box brought me back to the occupational therapists I had encountered in my childhood as my parents had sought services to help my younger brother manage his dyslexia and dyscalculia. In their offices and sensory gyms, my brother learned how to read and write independently, improve his executive functioning, and address motor challenges, his confidence transformed in the process. I admired how the occupational therapists met my brother where he was without judgment and worked with him to develop the skills and knowledge needed to achieve his own goals and pursue his own passions.
For the remainder of my time in college, I studied human development, community, and the greater societal forces that shape us, while gaining practical experience. From collaborating with a palliative care physician on an undergraduate seminar for pre-health students to serving as an assistant teacher in a toddler research center, I was confirmed in my belief that, in the words of Fred Rogers, “life is for service.”
The practice of occupational therapy, in my view, sits at the intersection of our understandings of the human condition, capacity for growth, and interdependence. What we do, who we are, and what we may be capable of in this world is made possible through the presence of others who are able to, with tenderness, hold a mirror up to our strengths, values, and areas of need, while collaborating on possibilities and strategies to move forward.
This is what has brought me to occupational therapy.