February is International Recreation Therapy month, making it a great time to talk a bit more about this important field. But what is therapeutic recreation exactly—and what role does it play in a patient’s life, both as an inpatient and once they leave the hospital?
“Therapeutic recreation covers a vast range of individual and different domains—corporate settings, parks and recreation, day programs and programs in the community and of course, physical rehabilitation,” says Alexandra Oudheusden, MS, CTRS, RYT, Director of Therapeutic Recreation at Burke.
According to the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA), “Clients in [Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation] have acquired limitations as a result of stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputation, orthopedic or other neurological conditions, and/or medical deconditioning. Resuming life activities following these conditions can be difficult. Recreational Therapy aims to reduce or eliminate these limitations to allow a return to a healthy and meaningful lifestyle.”
Burke’s Therapeutic Recreation department takes a holistic approach to healing and wellness, working with a patient’s prior interests to help them stay engaged and motivated. So, for example, if a patient was an avid golfer or tennis player, a recreational therapist could help them work towards getting back to those activities within the new framework of their illness or injury. A golfer might play adaptive golf, or a tennis player might now try wheelchair table tennis.
At Burke, all patients in the brain injury, spinal cord injury and neurological programs are referred to the Therapeutic Recreation department, but other clinicians, say a physical therapist, might also feel it’s important to incorporate recreational therapy into a treatment plan.
“We try to use activities and interests that patients already have so that those therapeutic interventions become powerful tools to motivate and promote independence,” says Oudheusden. “You don’t have a choice with some of the stuff you have to do. You may have to learn to use wheelchair, you don’t have an option. With us, if you want to play sports again there’s so much you can choose from—[there may be] five different sports that can meet those goals you have.”
The role of adaptive sports
Speaking of sports, adaptive sports are one way that therapeutic recreation plays a role in a patient’s life even after they leave the hospital. For both inpatients and outpatients, adaptive sports can be a form of co-treatment, and an introduction to activities outside of traditional therapy.
Once they are discharged—or for community members who haven’t been Burke patients—adaptive sports are a way for individuals with lifelong limitations to stay engaged in activity and to find people who might have similar experiences.
“Adaptive sports can be a great way to demonstrate personal success and independence—to prove they can overcome an obstacle,” says Oudheusden. It can also help them improve their fitness, whether it’s cardiovascular, strength, endurance or balance, she says.
There’s also an important social component: “There are decreased feelings of loneliness and isolation and improved quality of life,” she says. And while not much research has been done in this area, says Oudheusden, “when you see people day after day getting better, you can see that there are benefits that are marked.”
Burke itself has a longstanding adaptive sports program. In fact, there have been adaptive sports at Burke since the 1970’s. Today, the adaptive sports program includes wheelchair table tennis—a great first step into the world of adaptive sports, says Oudheusden—and a handcycle team, which has in-season weekly practices and competes in races, as well as day-long events and clinics such as adaptive water skiing, climbing and golf.
One of the highlights of Burke’s adaptive sports program: its volunteers. Last year, there were over 80 volunteers in the program, and upwards of 85 percent of them were Burke clinicians and staff. Volunteers are knowledgeable and work towards ensuring a safe experience for everyone involved.