Marcia Finlayson [BMROT/87, M.Sc./95, PhD/99] is internationally recognized for her work to improve the quality of life of people with multiple sclerosis (MS), particularly as they age.
Finlayson, an occupational therapist, spent 14 years as an educator and researcher at universities in Florida and Illinois. She is now professor, director of the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, and vice-dean (health sciences) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where she has been a faculty member since 2012.
In 2020, the three-time UM alumna was inducted into the prestigious Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. “This was such a big deal for me, since I spent so much of my career outside of Canada,” she says.
Originally from Morden, Man., Finlayson says she was drawn to occupational therapy because it had elements of both physical and mental health, and took into account what people wanted and needed to do in their own environments.
“There’s a real breadth and depth to the profession, and it was a really good fit for me,” she says.
She started her career at Seven Oaks General Hospital, then moved into a position with the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists that focused on older adults.
Her master’s and PhD thesis work was also concerned with aging. But by the time she completed her PhD in 1999, she was becoming interested in MS, a chronic condition that affects the central nervous system, with symptoms that often include walking difficulties and extreme fatigue.
Finlayson’s key goal is to enable older Canadians to manage the symptoms and impact of the disease on daily life. She has a particular interest in helping those without easy access to MS specialists.
“In rural areas, there aren’t a lot of people with the specialized knowledge or skills to support people with MS,” she says.
She works to develop, implement and evaluate MS self-management programs, and disseminate them so they can be used by any therapist. “A large part of my self-management work has focused on managing fatigue, which is one of the most debilitating symptoms,” she says.
Finlayson has published more than 165 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Some of the most-cited deal with the high risk of falling among people who are aging with MS, and fall prevention. For one of her studies, older adults with MS were asked to tell the story of their most recent fall.
“The stories were very diverse, but all of them were about people doing everyday activities that are important and meaningful to them. Their stories emphasized that fall prevention programs need to be client-centred.”
Finlayson’s self-management programs for MS develop skills for self-monitoring, problem-solving, communicating with providers, setting goals and generally living a fulfilling life.
She has trained occupational therapists internationally to use self-management programs, including a fatigue management program in Israel and Sweden, and a falls prevention program in the U.K.
“You can be a therapist somewhere like Dauphin, Manitoba or Lund, Sweden, and if you’ve got six people there with MS, which you probably have, you can use this program,” she says.