What is a meaningful life?

Public lecture showcases how occupational therapists help individuals find meaning through participation in daily activities

Amy Knezevich - 04 October 2019

What gives life meaning?

That is one of the main questions that occupational therapists solve for people from all walks of life-and that's what Mary Law, inaugural recipient of the Sharon Brintnell Lectureship Award in Advancing Occupational Therapy, explored in her lecture, delivered on September 21, 2019 at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in Corbett Hall.

Her lecture, entitled "What is a meaningful life? Enabling participation and activity for all individuals," drew more than 230 people, including those who joined in Calgary via live-stream.

Law, professor emerita at McMaster University, occupational therapist (OT), PhD, is the author of 15 books and over 250 articles. She has received many honours nationally and internationally including the Muriel Driver Lectureship, the top award in Canadian Occupational Therapy; the Whittaker Award for pediatric rehabilitation research; Queen's University Legacy of Achievement Alumni Award and election to the American Occupational Therapy Foundation Academy of Research and Fellow, Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. In 2018, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

"[A meaningful life] is one that is satisfying and has purpose (as defined by an individual)," said Law. A key to finding that purpose comes from participation: "engagement and involvement in a range of satisfying daily activities."

Law has dedicated her career, through research and practice, to enabling participation in everyday life for all individuals, and in particular, for children and youth with disabilities.

"Participation in occupations and activities that are meaningful for us helps us, research shows," said Law. "For example, it has been shown to extend life, improve life satisfaction, and improve children's and adolescents' performance in school and improve behavioural issues."

Law's lecture highlighted the importance of changing the environment and using client-driven approaches to enable meaningful participation.

"Occupational therapy provides therapy services to optimize participation in the activities people need or want to do but are having difficulty doing currently," said Law.

A number of factors lead to participation-personal skills, the activity itself and the environment (physical, social, economic, institutional). Environmental supports are significant mediators, Law explained. To help individuals live meaningful lives, occupational therapy enables and enhances participation through changing the environment.

"For children and youth with disabilities, diagnosis is not a significant predictor of participation," said Law. "The things that have the most important direct impact are skills and abilities, family participation and the child's preferences.

An individualized approach is much more likely to have a greater impact. There are many ways to do a particular activity. [We can enable participation] by listening to what clients want, by creating accessible and welcoming community environments to support participation."

The Sharon Brintnell Lectureship Award in Advancing Occupational Therapy provides an opportunity to highlight what occupational therapy is and how it changes lives. It also showcases individuals like Law, whose work has shaped the field internationally.

"[I] hope that people [left] with new information about how we can work together to create community environments that promote participation for persons with a disability or health issue," said Law.

"It was a great reminder of why we do what we do," said Mary Forhan, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

"Dr. Mary Law embodies the essence of the Brintnell Lectureship on advancement and leadership in occupational therapy," said Sharon Brintnell, professor emerita of the Department of Occupational Therapy, and the lectureship's namesake.

"It is the breadth and scope of her 46-year career that is extraordinary. Throughout it, Dr. Law has, in her low-key manner, promoted occupational therapy and expanded the exposure of its values and practice to Canadian and international audiences," said Brintnell.

The lectureship was established by the Department of Occupational Therapy, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, to honour E. S. (Sharon) Brintnell, in recognition of her foundational work within the faculty, the department and the field of occupational therapy.

Celebrate Occupational Therapy Month!

October is OT Month. All month long, the Department of Occupational Therapy will be celebrating occupational therapy with a variety of activities:

  • Members of the department will be visiting the Glenrose Hospital for a lunch and staff information session on October 9.
  • October 27 is World Federation of Occupational Therapy's Day of Service in which occupational therapists around the globe are encouraged to do service work for individuals or their community.
  • The department will be collecting donations for the U of A Campus Food Bank during the month of October leading up to the International Day of Service.
  • Student activities:

  • The OT Meme challenge on Instagram began on October 1 and wraps up on October 31.
  • Yoga Night - October 11 at Corbett Hall
  • Paint Night - October 18 at Corbett Hall
  • Pumpkin Carving - October 24 at Corbett Hall
  • Bake Sale - October 29 at ECHA or Corbett Hall
  • Halloween Costume Contest - October 31 at Corbett Hall
  • Competing in the "gOT Spirit Challenge" again this year with other OT programs across Canada. Video production will take place throughout the month and the final video will be posted on October 28. Public voting will be open from October 28 until November 4.
  • Everyone is encouraged to participate.