Occupational therapy: A recipe for success

Paula Osborne raises a fresh lemon over her head as she poses a question to the group. 

“Who here knows if we need to wash this lemon before we juice it?”  

Osborne, an occupational therapy technician at The Royal, goes on to explain that harmful bacteria might be hanging around the outer rind and hitch a ride with the knife as we cut into the fruit. “It’s always a good idea to wash any fruit we’re cutting, even melons,” she says, as one of the clients rinses the lemon in the sink. Now it’s ready to be juiced for a dish that will be cooked and shared by everyone in attendance.  

Osborne is leading a small group of clients in her adult education group through a food safety course in the occupational therapy kitchen.

It’s not exactly business as usual here today. Staff from The Royal are on hand to shoot a video showing the preparation of one of the most popular recipes in Osborne’s collection, a mouth-watering curry dish that has received rave reviews by staff and clients alike. (Click here for the recipe.)

Anie Charlebois, an occupational therapist who spends a lot of time with clients in the kitchen, was elected to walk through the recipe for the video. There’s lots of joking and chatter between takes. It looks, feels, sounds, and, with chopped onions frying on the stove, smells like exactly like a home economics class. 

It’s clear that time spent in the kitchen with an occupational therapist gently introduces clients to food and kitchen safety, healthy eating, budgeting, and imparts essential cooking skills. 

“This recipe is one that’s simple enough for our clients to make, it’s inexpensive, and it follows Canada’s Food Guide,” says Amanda Wannamaker, an occupational therapist in The Royal’s recovery program. 

The recipe also uses pantry staples that tend to be readily available at a food bank, which is indicative of the reality that many people living with mental illness face. 

“A meal that is affordable for our clients, makes people happy, keeps them healthy, it’s the epitome of what we do.” (“And it’s vegan,” she adds with a dramatic stage whisper. “Clients rarely want to make vegan recipes at home.”)

Cooking up a curry in the occupational therapy kitchen builds important skills for clients but it’s also a way for occupational therapists to assess their cognitive abilities, functional skills,  and see how they interact socially and work as a team. It also gives clients an opportunity to socialize and share a meal in a friendly, non-institutional setting. 

“It’s really about working together to get (clients) back to their life – and that’s what we do – and we do that by engaging with them in their own life. And that’s what’s really unique. And it’s super fun too.”

They say that the kitchen is the heart of the home and it’s not a far leap to say that this kitchen – which was fully renovated in April 2019 – might be the heart of the occupational therapy program. But just as there are many layers to the onion that’s thoughtfully peeled and chopped by one of Osborne’s clients in preparation for the curry dish, there are many layers to occupational therapy.    

Occupational therapists are essentially concerned with the business of everyday living, and occupational therapy helps individuals overcome challenges they may have with self-care, going to work or school, or leisure activities. 

“An OT can help with anything that you do in your day, from the moment you open your eyes to when you go back to sleep,” says Wannamaker. 

Occupational therapists are employed in schools, workplaces and hospitals. 

“Most people think of OTs as someone who prescribes a wheelchair, teaching someone how to use a modified spoon to eat, but it all goes back to allowing someone to do the things that are important to them during their day,” says Wannamaker, who points out that occupational therapists have a unique approach in relation to other professions in mental health.   

“What OT does really well is that we have people actually do things,” says Wannamaker. She is no stranger to taking on an active role at The Royal. She missed the filming of the recipe demo because she was busy with a group of clients helping the Ottawa Food Bank harvest tomatoes and squash on its farm before first frost. 

“With occupational therapy the learning often happens during the doing. We might be on a bus with somebody or we might be in a kitchen setting. What we do is build a whole bunch of different life skill learning into one thing.”

“It’s really about working together to get them back to their life – and that’s what we do – and we do that by engaging with them in their own life. And that’s what’s really unique. And it’s super fun too.” 

Occupational therapists are an important part of a client’s healthcare team. Information gleaned from a trip on the bus or a session in the kitchen effectively informs the client’s care by painting a more holistic picture of their health.

“We do a lot of interdisciplinary work and we do it really well,” says Wannamaker, who has been working at The Royal since 2010. “And that is not something that just happens.” 

Occupational therapy is as much about assessment and observation as it is about clients practicing their life skills, because if the skills aren’t there, it hinders a successful transition to living in the community. And it’s difficult to know how clients are going to fare if there hasn’t been a thorough assessment of their abilities and needs. 

Wannamaker gives an example of a former client who was discharged from her local hospital. She was given bus tickets but didn’t know where to go or what to do when she got there. 

“The people who need more support need longer to recover, they need more intensive services or they’re just stuck in the community,” says Wannamaker. 

When she describes her profession she uses words like “challenging,” “messy,” “rewarding” and “complicated,” but she wouldn’t trade it for anything.  

“You get to see the change in people’s lives, you get to interact with people and you get to walk with them,” says Wannamaker. “I’m present with them and we’re actually doing things, like cooking a meal. And that’s what I love.”