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Occupational therapy vital to hospital treatment - Reflections of Ponoka

Among the founding and long-standing staff administrators of the OT program at the hospital were: Gladys Crysler

One of the most interesting and essential links in the vital chain of treatments offered at the Provincial Mental Hospital (Centennial Centre) over the years has been the occupational therapy program. From humble beginnings in a small room in 1924, the OT Department at the Ponoka hospital has enjoyed overwhelming success and growth over the years as hundreds of patients are encouraged to fashion a wide array of fascinating pieces of artistry and handicrafts.

Early instruction consisted of basketry, fancywork, and simple woodwork, and the initial goal of the occupational therapy staff was to assist patients to take part in various creative activities that would help these groups of men and women to recover or compensate for skills that they had lost through illness. After only a year the OT Department was moved to two large vacant rooms above Male 4, with one of the areas used for arts and crafts and the other for carpentry work. Some of the countless exquisite articles created in these busy shops included beautifully carved models of boats, fish, birds, and many other subjects, along with needlecraft, metal work, weaving and ceramics.

Their doctors would recommend patients for the programs, and while many of them may have never worked with their hands before, they were always given the choice of activity, with absolutely no stress of quality or time lines. The main object of occupational therapy was to encourage the participant to attempt something to arouse their constructive interest, as well as to work together in daily groups, women in the mornings, men in the afternoon. Once or twice a year the fruits of their labour were put on sale at bazaars in the hospital, and later in the community, with the proceeds going toward program expenses and ongoing growth.

An amazing fact about the outstanding success of the OT programs was that while many of the objects were made from models, patterns, or drawings, there was always a certain distinction of personal feeling and lines evident in each item of workmanship, with no lifeless objects being turned out in a hurry. Although many patients may not have always reached a high standard of workmanship, the psychiatric staff soon realized occupational therapy had quickly become a reliable part of the tedious technique of creating participation and restoring wellness among the mentally ill.

There were also many ongoing spin-offs from the great success of the OT Department that would benefit both patients and staff for many years at the rapidly expanding Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka. This would include a print shop, a shoe shop, the hospital library in 1932, and a fully stocked canteen in 1938, from which the profits were used to purchase books, radios, and other treats for the patients, as well as contributing to recreation programs and other social endeavours and activities.

Beginning in 1947, attractive displays of handicraft exhibits were shipped to the annual fair in Edmonton, and some of the items included fine pottery and children’s toys, which were all widely viewed and admired by thousands of visitors.

The popularity and success of the OT Department reached a milestone in 1950 when a fully modern state of the art building was opened at the south end of the grounds. These new workshops created comfortable work spaces where 225 women and 250 men could pursue classes and create their projects each week, and became quickly known as one of the finest occupational therapy units in the nation. At this busiest time of the program, Gladys Crysler, Rita Barnhouse, C.D. Watson, and Alberta Watt were hired to lead a talented staff, and they stayed in those positions for many years. Also added to the OT program was a ceramics department that operated in the old laundry building next to the powerhouse, and would become a successful enterprise at the Alberta Hospital.

In the 1960s the occupational enterprises section was added to the OT format and introduced industrial therapy that would allow some of the wards to become involved in piecework for large provincial firms. A sheltered workshop was also opened in Ponoka, where patients were encouraged to make mats and assemble items of furniture. In 1969, after much groundwork and preparation and a $5,000 government grant, the first rehabilitation workshop program was introduced at the hospital.

The keen spirit of this enthusiastic and long-standing occupational therapy program at the hospital continues to this day. Under the supervision of congenial and professional staff at the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury, the patients are encouraged to create a wide variety of woodworking, ceramic, and other handicraft items in bright and modern shops.