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Physiotherapy volunteers work with young and old in Costa Rica

Projects Abroad is pleased to offer new opportunities to physiotherapy volunteers with the recent launch of two placements in Heredia, Costa Rica.

The children’s physical therapy room at Centro de Enseñanza Especial de Heredia

The placements offer volunteers the opportunity to assist professionals in two distinct areas of physiotherapy, one involving elderly citizens, and the other, disabled children. Through the diverse needs of their patients, each placement provides a wide variety of hands-on experience for volunteers. 

 The first placement, the Asociación Centro de Atención al Anciano Francisca Valerio Badilla, is a privately-sponsored senior citizen centre in Heredia, serving about 35 members of the local community. The facility is a recreation centre where members can gather to socialise, share meals and receive physiotherapy treatment from an on-site therapist. The centre aims to create a community where elderly citizens can pass the day with one another, while receiving nutritional advice, physical and mental stimulation, and lectures from medical and nursing students.

“We have seniors that were always seated, with no desire to do anything,” states Karla Sequeira, the primary physiotherapist for the centre. “Their family members have told us of the drastic change that these seniors have had after spending time here.”

When admitted to the centre, members are evaluated to assess their current physical state. From there, they are given an individualised treatment plan to help preserve their independence and quality of life.

One of the seniors at Asociacion Centro de Atención al Anciano Francisca Valerio Badilla strums the guitar

“Our goal is to give seniors a higher standard of living and a longer life,” Sequeira continues. “We want them to live to 100 and still be walking, still be functional, still be able to carry out their daily activities. There’s nothing better for them than being able to do things themselves.”

Volunteers at the centre will work alongside Karla, gaining insight into the various therapies utilised in maintaining and hopefully improving the functionality of the seniors at the centre. “Volunteers help me to work on controlling the patients’ blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as working on various exercises for the seniors.”

They are also able to work directly with the seniors in areas such as craft projects which focus on improving fine motor skills, as well as carrying out exercises which work on balance, coordination, muscular strength and stability.

“As a therapist, the challenge is always going to be to reach a person’s limits. To be able to help a person to make even a tiny step forward is proof that you have achieved something, and it’s always very gratifying,” adds Sequeira.

A senior receives electrode treatment from Projects Abroad volunteer for a foot problem at Asociacion Centro de Atención al Anciano Francisca Valerio Badilla

At the opposite end of the physiotherapy spectrum is therapy offered to children. Unlike adults, whose focus is on maintaining their physical capacity, the focus with children is on developing muscle tone and improving functionality. The second placement, Centro de Enseñanza Especial de Heredia, offers volunteers the opportunity to work alongside a team of physiotherapists specialising in paediatric physiotherapy.

The facility is a government-sponsored educational centre, receiving around 375 special needs students under the age of 21. The centre divides the students into three areas: multiple disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and emotional/behavioural disabilities. Students are then given one-on-one and group treatment by the school’s team of professionals spanning the areas of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, language therapy, psychology and social work.

Each student is given treatment until they reach their maximum functionality, then they receive follow-up treatment and observations as needed. “We work under a ‘functional’ paradigm,” states head physiotherapist, Ludmila. “We focus on what the child is able to do and aim to do something positive.”

The school regularly receives local physiotherapy students from nearby universities looking to gain practical experience and learn about the various disabilities the children face and how to manage them. It’s a physically demanding job, and one where young energy is highly valued.

Paediatric physiotherapy staff at Centro de Enseñanza Especial de Heredia in Costa Rica

“Here we work with children that are very disabled, so we make assessments to see what kind of wheelchair the child needs, what kind of postural adjustments can be made, and what we can do to make their lives better at home or to make them more active,” continues Ludmila. 

Volunteers may work in one or both of these placements so that they gain the experience of working in paediatrics as well as with seniors. Despite the differences in treatment approaches, both placements are eager to embrace the fresh ideas that an international community can offer.

“Anyone that comes here has a different perspective which enriches our work,” continues Ludmila. “We’ve even changed our visions over time about physiotherapy… We do what we can with few resources and tend to focus more on concepts.” 

By working alongside local professionals, volunteers and interns have the opportunity to not only gain hands-on experience and practical understanding in the field of physiotherapy, but they are also able to help their patients take small steps in improving their lives.

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