Treating Alzheimer's patients: From IT to OT

by Len Lear
Posted 3/21/24

You wouldn’t argue against Emily S. Gavin’s commitment to service. She's a dementia care expert.

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Treating Alzheimer's patients: From IT to OT


You wouldn’t argue against Emily S. Gavin’s commitment to service. A resident of Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, and Germantown in Philadelphia for the past 26 years, Gavin is a dementia care expert. She earned her master’s degree in occupational therapy and is a year away from obtaining her doctorate in the field from Thomas Jefferson University.

“It can be very frustrating to ask someone with no short-term memory the same question every five minutes,” said Gavin, who opened a solo private practice, PhillyCare Coaching LLC, in Germantown last year. “The patient might ask, 'When am I going home?' while already at home.”

Instead of responding with 'I already told you that you are home,' which can shame the person, Gavin adopts a different approach. “Tell me about your home,” she’ll ask, or inquire about the patient’s favorite aspects of their home.

“You acknowledge the emotions and don’t just shut the patient down,” she said.

Mary Smull, one of Gavin's clients, said last week that working with Gavin transformed her relationship with her aging elder. “Emily is an incredible listener and a fantastic resource,” she said. “I cannot recommend her service highly enough.”

Another client, Marilyn Allahand, noted that her family had worked with other occupational therapists but found Gavin to be the most knowledgeable and helpful. “She has given us creative ways to help me and my husband deal with his mobility issues,” Allahand said. “Emily has definitely helped reduce the stress in our lives.”

Gavin grew up in upstate New York and came to the Philadelphia area to attend Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in cultural anthropology. She stayed in the area, drawn to occupational therapy during her master's studies. “One of my first jobs was in a skilled nursing facility. I knew I had to learn much more, so I took continuing education courses,” she said.

In 2014, Gavin and her wife moved in with her mother-in-law, who had Parkinson’s disease dementia, in Germantown. They cared for her for five years before she passed away in 2019. “That experience made me want to do much more for dementia patients,” she said.

Gavin earned an instructor's certificate and later became an instructor of dementia care at Mercy Life in West Philadelphia, where she trained over 100 caregivers for families affected by Alzheimer’s and related dementias. She started her private practice in June of the previous year and began seeing clients in September.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than six million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, two-thirds of whom are women. About one in nine Americans over 65 have Alzheimer's, and some patients as young as 60 have early-onset Alzheimer’s. Frontotemporal dementia can appear in individuals in their 30s, though it is rare.

“The health care system in the U.S. does not handle dementia treatment very well,” Gavin stated. “Caregivers often rely on instinct or intuition, which is well-meaning but not always helpful.”

Gavin pointed out that caring for dementia patients is challenging, largely due to the patients' physical aggression and sometimes inappropriate behavior. However, she believes that understanding the triggers of such behavior can lead to better management strategies. “Medication is often the first line of defense, but sedating someone can take away their freedom and much of their life. We should approach these individuals from a behavioral standpoint, considering their cognitive abilities,” she explained.

Effective treatments, she noted, include animal therapy, art therapy, and music therapy, which help engage the patient’s sense of self-efficacy and self-worth.

Gavin has spoken publicly about dementia care at local organizations such as the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club and Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. She is scheduled to speak at Christ Church in Center City and the Center on the Hill at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Thursday, April 18, at 11 a.m.

For more information, call 267-375-9131 or visit Len Lear can be reached at