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Stroke Recovery: When You Need Vocational Rehabilitation

By Julie Davis

For most of us, a large part of our sense of self-worth is invested in our vocation—the work we do. A stroke or any other disorder, injury or disease can do so much damage psychologically, on top of the physical devastation. For this reason, vocational rehabilitation, or vocational therapy, is a vital component in any stroke recovery program for stroke survivors or those who suffer any serious injury to the spine and head and a similar condition.

Vocational therapy is different from occupational therapy in its focus. Occupational therapy is concerned with helping the patient regain the ability—the muscular control and coordinative skills—to perform the activities of daily living, which may involve personal tasks, such as bathing, and job-related tasks, such as talking on the telephone.

Vocational rehabilitation, on the other hand, is more focused on helping the individual re-learn the more complex skills that they performed on the job before the stroke occurred or on learning new skills for a different job and looking for new job opportunities. By helping the individual maintain an adequate level of financial stability, the therapist can preserve his or her self-esteem as well as way of life.

The vocational therapist works with the individual to provide guidance, skills training and job placement assistance. It is important for the vocational therapist and the rest of the rehab team to make the stroke survivor and family members aware of the possible timeframe for the recovery and help them understand the process. In some cases, stroke recovery rehabilitation can take an entire year before significant restoration of skills is achieved.

The rehabilitation process may cover instructions in business or vocational skills, schooling in college and on-the-job training. Funds from the government (state and/or federal) are available to cover training costs, provided the individual qualifies. There are also programs using private and state funds that pay wages during training. The therapist can look for employers who participate in these activities.

If you are still working and want to keep working, you may need help preparing for re-employment. The vocational therapist may conduct workshops on resume writing, tactics in applying for jobs and simulated interviews.

Re-training is another aspect of vocational therapy. In the job markets of today, older adults (who are the most likely to suffer strokes) will need re-training in computers to become employable. Similar re-training may also be done for those who have lost jobs because their skills have become obsolete or because of downsizing and/or industry restructuring.

Re-training is often recommended when individuals need a new set of skills because they are suffering progressive illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis or have an injury that alters their physical functioning, such as a spinal cord injury, or reduces work tolerance as with a herniated spinal disc.

Those having severe disabilities may be asked to attend structured workshops. These are designed to re-direct the individual’s skills in various aspects such as managing finances, exercising adequate skills in communications and even wearing appropriate business attire.

If the individual is on the cusp of retirement age when he suffers a stroke, job re-entry may no longer be a goal of rehabilitation. The vocational therapist may then provide guidance for the transition to retirement, particularly the timing and the assurance of an appropriate exit. This will have to be discussed thoroughly: retirement should not be seen as a penalty for illness but rather a reward for years of diligent work.