Welcome back to The Faithful OT. This week, I thought it could be nice to talk a bit about religious participation as an occupation. If you need a refresher on what occupation is, you can check out my last blog post.
In many occupational therapy programs across the country, electives and core courses are offered to occupational therapy students on spirituality and OT practice. While there is still much work to be done when it comes to providing tools for OTs to address spirituality, it appears that over the years, occupational therapists have developed many tools and frames of reference to study the use of spirituality in OT interventions. In many of the writings on spirituality in OT practice, there are notes from authors on how spirituality differs from religion, and it appears that there are not may resources that address religious participation directly.
As an occupational therapy student at a Catholic university, I have been educated on some basics of religious healthcare ethics. However, while my school makes time for students to participate in religious occupations by allowing them to be dismissed from class at the beginning of every academic year to attend mass on campus, I don’t believe my OT program provided education on how to incorporate religious participation within OT services.
That being said, does viewing religious participation from an occupational lens matter? In the United States, people are becoming less involved in formalized religious practice, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. How many of our patients actually care about addressing their religion, and do their occupational profiles or environmental barriers really stop people from attending church or participating in their religion? Personally, I would argue yes! Something I think both occupational therapists and religious leaders need to consider is that for many people, including myself, religion is not just something that exists in one’s head. It is lived out through actions and participation in communion with others.
To provide an example, before the pandemic, I had a class in occupational therapy school in which we the students were allowed inside of a skilled nursing facility to work with patients on gathering their occupational profiles and coming up with intervention ideas to help these patients work towards discharge. On this visit, it just so happened that the patient I was randomly paired with was a Roman Catholic religious sister. My patient had been discharged to this SNF after a long hospital stay and difficulty communicating verbally with her health conditions. As we talked, I asked her many yes or no questions and tried to gather as much information about her as I could. When I was asking her about her daily routine within this facility, I realized I hadn’t asked her anything about her vocation as a religious sister. So in order to make some casual conversation while I was working on her wheelchair, I asked if anyone had been taking her to mass in the facility. Her eyes dropped, and she quietly shook her head “no.” I was shocked. Sure, my patient had quite a few medical needs, and needed to be tilted in her wheelchair every so often to avoid pressure injuries. However, we were within a facility with trained staff who knew how to take care of this sister’s health needs, and they had a Catholic mass multiple times a week.
My heart broke for my patient. Being a Catholic myself, I know how one’s vocation to religious life is not just an identity one may have, but something that impacts how one lives and moves throughout the world. Catholic religious are vowed to complete certain prayers throughout the day, and it could be assumed that much of my patient’s typical routine outside of the hospital and nursing facility was driven by her religious vocation.
As an OT, I value my patients’ daily routines, and I often am striving for my patients to be discharged from therapy ready to independently complete as many of their typical daily activities as possible. I’m not a theologian, nor am I an expert on many religions outside of the ones I have personally identified with throughout my life. But I recognize that educating myself on different religions is crucial to my work as an occupational therapist. The religions my patients identify with are going to drive the actions they do throughout their day, and to be client-centered as many healthcare professionals strive to be, I think it’s best practice to ask a patient about any religious practices that are important to them when you are gathering information for their occupational profile. Some examples of religious occupations I personally have worked on with my clients or have seen in practice include helping a Muslim woman who wears the hijab on one-handed dressing techniques, creating a social story with a Christian teenager with an intellectual disability about her church camp, educating a Hindu patient’s wife on ergonomic ways to physically support her husband for proper positioning during prayer, and creating a hand stretching protocol a patient can complete while he prays the rosary using his ten fingers.
Last time I posted, I linked to Disability Theology: A Working Bibliography, which is a list of resources from a theological lens on disability, including newspaper articles, academic articles, books, and denomination-based resources on disability. I feel that this resource could be very helpful to half of my intended audience, those in the world of religious-based work, ministers, and clergy. In addition to this resource, I have decided to create Occupational Therapy & Religious Practice: A Working Bibliography, a resource aimed at occupational therapy students and practitioners with readings and resources on addressing religious practice and spirituality with clients. It is my hope that making these resources will help OTs use evidence-based practice to feel empowered to address religion with their clients and perhaps work with religious-based community groups on creating environments that are more accommodating for the disability community.