Creative Careers in the Arts

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Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews

Dorothy-Clare Jacobs: Occupational Therapy Assistant

By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Updated June 9, 2018

Dorothy-Clare Jacobs is an occupational therapy assistant who works in the Recreation Department of The Milwaukee Catholic Home, a long-term care facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dorothy entered college for the first time at age 52. She earned an Associate's Degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College at the age of 55.

Q: What do you like to do when you're not hard at work at the Milwaukee Catholic Home, Dorothy?

A: I enjoy knitting and listening to books on tape. I love to cook, watch rented movies (I don't watch television), read, spend time with friends and connect with them via email. I boat in the summer with a friend, and I love to travel.

Q: How does your creativity help you in your work as an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

A: I love my job because I am very creative and imaginative, and while not many of my groups are arts and crafts related, I get to use my creativity to keep the residents interested and stimulated. I have a great sense of humor and find that humor does wonders for engaging the residents.

Working with the elderly means working with people of different abilities, both physical and cognitive, so the activities I plan must be adaptable to different levels of ability within the same group. There are times when the behaviors of people with dementia can effect a group's dynamics, and I have to scrap an activity I've spent a great deal of time planning. That's when I improvise — a new idea must be thought of very quickly. For example, I might have a simple craft group planned, and arrive on the unit to find a few of the residents agitated. Since a quiet craft group won't work in those conditions, I might change the group to a sing-a-long, or playing with a beach ball, which allows the residents to blow off some steam. The craft can always be done another day.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you cope?

A: There are a few challenging aspects of my job. One is apathy and depression among the residents, particularly new arrivals. Sometimes, it's very difficult to get them out of their rooms for activities. But once they do attend, they find that they enjoy themselves and will come to the next activity more readily. Another challenge is disruptive behaviors among residents with the most severe cases of dementia. Occasionally, they can be disruptive to the entire group. If a nursing assistant isn't available to help, I have to interrupt what I am doing to assist the resident with a problem.

I am trained to work in every unit of the home. This means I have to be familiar with over 150 residents, which is challenging. I work with the highest functioning residents as well as the lowest functioning, but at different times. They are all equal in priority to me. I have to plan groups that meet the needs of as many residents as possible within a given group, and adapt every project so as many people as possible can participate.

One day in the dementia unit, we made graham cracker sandwich cookies. The higher functioning residents read the recipe aloud, and the lower functioning residents stacked the crackers, and placed them on cookie sheets. Sometimes I have to make work for a resident or two so that more people can participate — for example, I asked one lady to count the crackers as I frosted them. Her counting was not accurate, which was immaterial, but she was participating and felt important.

Q: What is the most surprising aspect of your work? Tell me how you deal with the unexpected situations and challenges that arise in caring for your residents.

A: Occasionally, I have to completely change what I had planned. I may adapt it and make it a little easier. Other times, I have to add activities because what I had planned went faster than I expected. Recently, I was doing a "Reminisce" group on Easter and family traditions. I ended up with a very small group (4), whereas I usually have about 12-15 people. Our discussion would be finished long before the activity period ended. So, I quickly went to the supply closet, found adult coloring pictures of spring flowers and fancy Easter eggs, etc. and colored pencils and markers. While we had our discussion, we colored beautiful pictures, and hung them in the hallway for all to enjoy.

In my job, there are many surprises. Routine groups can take an unexpected twist when "regulars" decide not to come, or several guests attend. I have to be flexible and think on my feet. This is part of what I love about my job. To some people, this would be stressful, but it is a challenge that I welcome. I just roll with it, and encourage my residents to go in a purposeful direction.

This actually happened to me yesterday. On Friday afternoons we have a cocktail hour. One of the men has lived there for several years, and this was the first time he had ever attended Happy Hour! Then guests began to arrive — I ended up with more guests than residents, including several children! It was standing-room only. I served cocktails, soda and snacks. Can you imagine drinking thickened beer?

(Author's Note: Eww! That sounds awful! I'm laughing as I write this, because I have worked in long-term care facilities as well- those thickeners are an important part of some residents' diets, but they're certainly unappetizing!)

Dorothy's Answer, continued The discussion I had planned wasn't going to work anymore with all the guests, especially the kids. I thought quickly and came up with a new plan. I asked the children about their schools and we had fun with that — two of them go to a German Immersion school and I know a bit of German. We quizzed them — had them count, name the colors, etc. in German, and that made them feel more comfortable talking in front of the other residents.

The elders told the children about what it was like when they were in elementary school. There is a public elementary school right across the street — visible from the recreation room windows. Two of the residents attended that school and the kids thought that was pretty cool. I am currently planning a tour of the school for all the residents who attended that school.

Q: What type of education or job experience do you need to become an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

A: I graduated from college with an Associate Degree as an Occupational Therapy Assistant. My experience in previous jobs and my love of creativity have served me well in this field.

Q: What was your first job as a young woman?

I worked in the kitchen and dining room of a long term care facility. When I turned 18, became a nursing assistant. Since then, every one of my jobs except one, have been in the medical field.

Q: When did you decide to go into this field? What made you choose this type of work?

A: When I went to college a few years ago I wanted to become a Registered Nurse. However, I have had several back injuries and have a permanent lifting restriction of 15 pounds. The school would not admit me to the nursing program. One of my teachers also taught Occupational Therapy Assistant classes, and she told me all about the program. That was it — I was hooked when I learned I could work either in recreation or in psychology, another passion of mine.

Q: What is your favorite way to inspire yourself, fill the well of creativity, and feel fabulous?

A: I love Creativity Portal! (Nope, I didn't get paid to say that.) I get great project ideas there that I have used in my work with the residents — many times, I can adapt a project to suit their needs and strengths. I also read magazines like Better Homes and Gardens; some of the do-it-yourself decorating ideas and adapt them for our activities sessions.

My favorite way to make myself feel fabulous physically is to get a massage and a pedicure on the same day. I fulfill myself spiritually daily with prayer and meditation … that fills my creativity bank.

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to break into this field?

A: Be energetic. People feed off my energy. I truly love my job and enjoy the residents — and they can tell! Many of their family members have commented on this. I go home tired, but my residents never see that part of me.

Q: What is a typical day at work for you? Do you have a set schedule of activities, or are you allowed to just "wing it?" How many hours do you work per day/per week?

A: Scheduling is important for the elderly. Some folks have failing memories, and it is important for them to have a printed calendar of events that they can rely on with few changes. On the dementia unit, this is especially important, and their schedule is quite rigid. Monday evening is always a travelogue, for example. There is a bit more leeway on the other units.

I'm normally scheduled to work approximately 15 hours a week. However, because I am a "float" and work on every unit as needed, I generally work more than that, up to 40 hours per week.

Q: Describe some of the art or writing activities you do with residents; if possible, something anyone could do at home.

A: I save every CD I get in the mail (such as free promotional software) and pick them up in stores whenever I see them. Using these CDs, we've made several different projects. Recently, we created some great fish to hang from the ceiling. Using colorful construction paper, cut out fins, tails, and eyes. Glue the paper between the printed sides of the CDs. Then, fan-fold colored printer paper for the side fins and stick it through the hole in the center. To hang the fish, feed monofilament fishing line through the center hole, leaving enough length to tie a knot and hang.

Another project we've done recently was a garden collage. I emailed different companies for seed catalogs during the winter, and saved my magazines with pretty garden pictures in them. While watching a movie, I cut out the best pictures. As a group, we made a fabulously colorful collage — during a huge snowstorm! We filled every inch of a poster-board. It is now the centerpiece of our spring bulletin board.

We also used the seed catalog pictures to make another collage. We "planted" a beautiful garden of vegetables and flowers on colorful poster board. I drew walkways, and the residents decided what to plant, according to what they like to eat.

Fun Foam is great stuff too. It's stronger than paper, inexpensive when it's on sale and very versatile. I have a keen eye when I am at rummage sales — I watch for anything I think I can use for projects.

Q: Do you ever have days when you feel stuck, uninspired, or just plain oogy? How do you invite the Muses to return and shine for you again?

A: I'll flip through craft books or magazines, my files of saved projects, the Internet, or rummage through my craft "junk." Or I'll revisit a project I did previously, changing certain aspects of it to make it into something new. I save just about every feasible project I come across. I can always simplify it to suit my needs. The Internet is a great resource.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

A: I'd love to become the recreation director here, or in another facility.

Q: You give so much creative energy to the folks you work with. How do you save a little for your own creative work? Are you currently working on any exciting creative projects just for you?

A: I think the more creative energy I use at work, the more I receive. I work with a great group of women and we inspire one another. I just moved into my first solo apartment where I don't have to consult with or please anyone else's tastes in decorating. I get to do it my way!

Q: You've had a long and successful career. If you could travel back in time to visit your twenty-year-old self, what words of wisdom or advice would you give her?

A: Don't wait until a divorce forces you to go to college at age 52! Go when you are young and can have a long lovely life doing this wonderful work!

Next Interview: Annie Lang, Designer, Author, and Artist

©2007 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.

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