Gladys Freund Barker, BSOT ‘39, MS
“No matter how old you are, no matter how disabled, there is always some way to engage in life and find self-worth and dignity.”
That’s how Gladys Freund Barker feels about life and her career in occupational therapy (OT). Barker, who turned 100 years old in 2017, was one of only four students of the St. Louis School of Occupational and Recreational Therapy (the precursor for the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University School of Medicine) when she graduated in 1939.
“The general philosophy in OT at the time was that people could improve by doing something that made them feel good about their own sense of self-worth,” she recalls. “That’s why the coursework included learning how to do a lot of crafts, such as woodworking, knitting, jewelry-making, painting and drawing. We would use those fun activities as therapy.”
She recalls helping some of her first patients by teaching them weaving. “We would give them a loom where they would learn to pull a shuttle back and forth,” she says. “They didn’t know it was exercise; they thought it was fun. But it helped them to regain mobility and strength.”
Barker herself has had a lifelong interest in design and crafts, which was one of the reasons that she was drawn to a career in OT. She originally attended Washington University to become a fashion designer, but with the Great Depression still being felt in the community, jobs in fashion were few and far between. Her father told her to find another profession.
“In the late 1930s, crafts were big in OT, so I decided I would go back to college for that degree,” she says. “It really was a thrill to take my interest in creative activities and make it a career.”
What intrigued her were observations during practicums and classes that a sense of self-worth could be cultivated among patients. “I often worked in a communications skills group where many of the patients were severely disabled and couldn’t do much,” she remembers. “I would tell them, ‘close your eyes, don’t talk for a few minutes, listen and then open your eyes and tell me what you really see.’ One man who was paralyzed described seeing the beautiful door in the corner, and tears came to his eyes as he noticed all of the details. He became intimately aware of his surroundings and could appreciate all that he saw. We did that with sound exercises, too. These activities really focused on using whatever senses and mobility a patient had to give themselves a reason for living.”
Barker took a break from her career to raise three sons, but she was never far from engaging in community activities. She served on numerous boards for local organizations, including the Miriam Foundation and School, a passion of hers for more than 50 years. Once her own children were older, she returned to the field of OT and worked until she retired in 1982, always challenging herself with new courses to keep up with rapid changes in the profession. Throughout her career, she worked with a wide variety of patients with disabilities, including mentally challenged individuals, physically disabled adults, recovering alcoholics, geriatric patients and children with learning disabilities.
She says, “I incorporated a wide range of manual and creative skills and learned, in almost all cases, that those skills could be used to improve physical and mental health. There was growing evidence that those types of rehabilitation activities correlated to a patient’s medical treatment and rehabilitation outcomes.”
While working with geriatric patients at the Truman Restorative Center, a convalescent center for elderly indigent and sick persons in St. Louis, Barker theorized that the mental health of patients could be more of an influential factor in recovery than a patient’s overall physical condition. To explore that theory, she went back to college again, eventually earning a master’s degree in humanistic psychology from Lindenwood University.
In 2009, the Program in Occupational Therapy honored Barker with its Alumni Achievement Award. “OT has been a very rewarding career,” she says emphatically. “I really feel so fortunate that I could do this for most of my life, and I think I’m a better person for it.”
Barker herself is a passionate believer in learning something new every year to keep the mind active and because that effort continuously builds a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Her latest pursuit, as she surpasses the century mark in her age, is portrait painting.
“I’m wild about painting right now,” she says with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter how old you are; you need to keep learning every day.”