By Tony Gentry
Can you remember a time when there were no smartphones? No wifi? No Google? Our story starts there. Back at the turn of the Century, Chris and I were working at a day rehab program for people with brain injuries in Charlottesville and tried out a couple of new-fangled devices that seemed to offer promise as memory aids for our clients. One was a Palm Pilot, touted as a “personal digital assistant” and the other was an alarm reminder watch called the Timex Datalink. You may remember them, but it can be hard to recall how amazing they seemed at the time. For the first time, we had devices that not only served as calendars and to do lists, but that could go “ding!” and remind you to do what was on the list! The power of this innovation really came home to us when the wife of one of our clients announced, “Since his injury, my husband (a lawyer) has relied on me to nag him to do every little thing — his pills, his chores — but since you taught him how to use this PDA, it does the nagging instead of me.” And then she said this amazing thing: “For the first time since the accident, I’ve begun to feel less like a mother and more like a wife again.”
That did it for us. Here was a tool that could help people with memory impairment get through their day without nagging! Wow!
Things happened quickly after that. My dissertation at UVA showed how PDAs could improve the functional independence of people with cognitive challenges related to multiple sclerosis. At the Partnership for People with Disabilities at VCU, I used the same devices and showed the same results for people with traumatic brain injuries or autism (thanks to a grant from the Commonwealth Neurotrauma Initiative). Meanwhile, in her work as an occupational therapist at Sheltering Arms Outpatient Center in Bon Air and then at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Chris incorporated these strategies in her everyday work with a wide-ranging patient population.
And then the iPhone, and the iPod Touch, and the iPad, and Android phones, and two million apps and counting….
As a professor in the occupational therapy department at VCU I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to ride this tiger of constant, disruptive change, seeking to leverage an avalanche of mobile technologies to support people with cognitive-behavioral challenges of every stripe. Federal grants supported the first randomized controlled trial showing that an occupational therapy intervention using the iPod Touch could seriously reduce the need for job coaching support among workers with autism. Further grants helped me set up smart homes using practical, affordable technologies at the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville and at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond. I’ve been using wrist-worn health trackers to help people lose weight and sleep better. These and other studies have provided rich evidence and experience in the most effective ways tools like these can help people with cognitive-behavioral challenges function better in their everyday lives.
Thus Neurological Expert Therapies, LLC. Chris and I are taking what we’ve learned over all these years into this business venture, providing home-based therapy throughout the larger Richmond, Virginia area. We’ve worked with clients as far afield as Virginia Beach, Fairfax, and Roanoke with conditions including brain injury, stroke, autism, cerebral palsy, mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis. And we’re sharing what we learn with other service providers, having delivered over 200 workshops in 22 states and 4 foreign countries, and having published widely in research and practice journals. We love our careers as occupational therapists. We love having discovered these remarkable tools that can change lives so affordably. And we love helping people make that happen.