Clad in a Santa hat and Christmas light bulb earrings, Amber Becker is decked out in the holiday spirit as she decorates sugar cookies in the Independence Square kitchen at the Omaha Campus. Placing red M&M’s on a Christmas tree cutout to represent a string of lights, the activity also doubles as a recreation therapy session. Amber’s working to regain strength and mobility in her left hand after experiencing stroke-like symptoms in the weeks after the birth of her third son. “It’s nice to be able to carry on family traditions like cookie decorating despite being at the hospital for Christmas,” Amber said.
For Amber and other patients recovering from an illness or injury, the days leading up to Christmas and the New Year spent away from family and friends can be difficult. That’s why Madonna staff continually look for ways to incorporate the sights and the sounds of the season through the entire month of December. Blowing party horns to ring in the New Year doubles as an speech therapy activity. Organizing Christmas-themed activities like tree-trimming in patient dining areas becomes an opportunity for occupational therapists to help regain reaching skills. Baking Christmas cookies involves following directions and sequencing (putting thoughts, actions or information in order). Outings to the grocery store or Mulhalls, an Omaha home and garden store, becomes a recreation therapy activity.
“Therapeutic community outings expose patients to real life scenarios, including ways to navigate an environment with the help of a therapist alongside for education and therapeutic skills,” Jessie Eveland, a recreation therapist, said. “Especially during the Christmas season, our outing to a home and garden store allowed patients to breathe in the smell of fresh-cut trees and walk through the lifelike trees for a dose of inspiration along with the physical and emotional benefits during the holiday season.”
Even wrapping Christmas gifts provides patients therapy opportunities including standing, balancing, upper body coordination and cognitive sequencing.
“Typically wrapping gifts is a ‘normal’ part of Christmas preparation. When patients are in the hospital during the holidays, they may not get to fully enjoy the Christmas season,” Occupational Therapist Kayla Hoge said. “Incorporating traditional gift wrapping is a fun way to allow patients to experience Christmas despite their unfortunate circumstances.”
Harry Payne is passionate about spreading holiday cheer through music. “It gives me great joy to provide entertainment for people to enjoy,” Harry said. A retired professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Music department, Harry recently accompanied a group of Madonna patients singing Christmas carols. The impromptu concert at the Omaha Campus featured many favorites including “Holy Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” At 89, Harry can still recall many of the songs from memory. A brain injury survivor, the concert also gave Harry the opportunity to practice his speech and language skills in addition to memory and hand-eye coordination.
Cait Scott is a speech therapist who organized the concert, now in its second year, as a way to incorporate music into therapy for patients who do not speak, speak very little or need to work on increasing their vocal volume. “The patients caroling came from different areas of the hospital and were working on various skills including sustained attention, participation in a group activity, vocal volume and breath support for singing,” Scott said. “Music is such a beautiful avenue for patients who have sustained injuries such as brain injuries, strokes and other traumatic events, especially during Christmas time!”