It's hard to cook dinner when a stroke has paralyzed the right side of your body. To stir hot food on the stove, for example, you need two hands - one to stir and one to stabilize the pot. And when you walk with a cane, it's almost impossible to carry a serving bowl from the counter to the table. If you've always loved to cook, the loss of this activity can be painful and depressing.

Meaningful Occupations

Enter the occupational therapist. "We focus on helping people engage in activities, or occupations, that are meaningful to them," says Patricia Schaber, assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Minnesota. "We determine the physical and environmental barriers to an activity and then find ways to eliminate or minimize them."

For example, the occupational therapist might teach one-handed techniques like stabilizing the hot pot with an assistive device and moving dishes from the counter to the table on a cart.

Occupational therapists (OTs) work with people of all ages. For instance, they help children with developmental and other disabilities play and learn. On the other end of the continuum, they help elders find ways to compensate for disability or frailty so they can remain in their own home and continue to enjoy activities such as gardening or socializing.

Many OTs work in hospitals. But job opportunities also exist in long-term care, home healthcare, outpatient rehab centers, community agencies and school systems.

Changing Roles

In the past, OTs usually worked with individual patients. But as the field of occupational therapy begins to focus more on community participation, therapists are moving into educational and consultative roles.

"In memory clinics, OTs are doing functional assessments of patients. They might look at a person's ability to handle finances, manage medications or get around in unfamiliar places," Schaber explains. This information helps the clinic team make an accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

The OT can also use this information to educate the primary caregiver about how to support the person at home by adapting everyday activities.

OTs In The Schools

Over 30 percent of OTs work in school systems. But as special education students are mainstreamed, OTs are less likely to work with individual children. Instead, they are collaborating with regular classroom teachers to create an environment in which students with disabilities can succeed.

"The OT becomes a consultant for the classroom teacher. If a student has ADHD, the therapist might suggest frequent breaks so the child can move, an increase or a reduction in sensory stimulation, or even a different chair," Schaber says.

Education And Outlook

Beginning this year, OTs must complete a master's degree. To be licensed, they must also pass a national certification exam. Some states have additional requirements for therapists who use physical modalities such as heat or ultrasound.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for OTs will remain good through 2014. Limits on reimbursement may affect the job market in the short term. In the long term, however, the growth in the aging population and number of individuals with disabilities should increase job opportunities.

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.