What is Geriatrics?
Caring for Older Adults
Geriatrics is the branch of healthcare that focuses on our unique needs as we age. Just as pediatricians specialize in the health needs of children, geriatricians and fellow geriatrics health professionals specialize in the health needs of older people.
Many of us will experience unique health conditions and concerns as we grow older. Geriatrics healthcare professionals are specially trained to help us manage our well-being so we can continue to maintain health and independence for as long as possible. For example, after age 65, more than half of us are likely to live with three or more medical problems such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, or high blood pressure. In addition, some older adults may live with additional health considerations, such as problems with mobility and difficulty performing daily activities. These factors create medical challenges that geriatrics healthcare professionals can help address.
Geriatrics practitioners focus on 5 key areas when it comes to the older adults in their care. Known as the Geriatric 5Ms, these include:
Did You Know: Prescribing medications for a person with several health problems is complex. A treatment that might be useful in treating one health problem could make another problem worse. Taking several medications can cause drug interactions, side effects, and other problems.
Who Provides Geriatric Care?
Geriatrics is known for its team approach to caring for older people and supporting their families and other caregivers. The geriatrics care team may include (but is not limited to) any or all of the following professionals:
- Geriatricians are doctors who are specially trained to evaluate and manage the unique healthcare needs and treatment preferences of us all as we age. Geriatricians are board-certified internists or family physicians who have additional training and certification in geriatrics. Because of their special training, geriatricians typically provide care for frail older people who have special medical and social needs.
- Gerontological nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses with additional training to provide care to older adults who may still be quite healthy and active, as well as people who may need additional help with complex care.
- Physician assistants are licensed medical professionals who practice medicine and prescribe medication as part of a healthcare team. Physician assistants work with physicians and other providers to make care possible.
- Social workers are licensed professionals who assist people in dealing with challenges and opportunities in their lives. Some social workers specialize in diagnosing and treating mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
- Consultant pharmacists are pharmacists who specialize in prescribing medication to address older adults’ specific health needs.
- Nutritionists are experts on the role of food and nutrition in managing health. They provide advice to people on which foods to eat to promote good health or manage a specific health condition.
- Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who help people with improving mobility and reducing pain. Physical therapists who treat older adults often focus on managing conditions such as arthritis, joint replacements, and balance problems.
- Occupational therapists are professionals who assist people in participating fully in activities of daily living. They may help older adults with activities such as physical movement (including balance, strength, and coordination), housekeeping, and driving.
- Speech and hearing specialists focus on helping older people recover from issues related to hearing, talking, and swallowing. They often help older adults recover from or manage conditions that impact speech and hearing, such as Parkinson’s disease, brain injuries, or strokes.
- Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions, including prescribing psychiatric medication. Geriatric psychiatrists have special training related to the mental health of older adults and help older adults with issues such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and difficulty with bereavement (grief after the death of someone you know).
- Psychologists are clinicians who are not physicians but who treat mental health conditions without medication, such as through the use of therapy and counseling. They often work with psychiatrists and social workers in treating older adults.
A geriatrics health professional team can include many other colleagues, based on a person’s unique needs.
These professionals evaluate our medical, social, emotional, and other needs as we age. The team also focuses on health concerns common in older people such as incontinence, falls, memory problems, and managing multiple chronic conditions and medications.
A geriatrics team's duties include:
- evaluating a person’s social supports and living situation
- considering the person’s ability to perform daily activities such as bathing, dressing, and eating
- giving special attention to personal preferences and values when it comes to planning our care
When to Consult a Geriatrician
Consider consulting a geriatrician when:
- You or an older person you know has health conditions that cause significant impairment or frailty (a problem associated with aging where someone is often weak, has less endurance, and is less able to function well.) Impairment most often occurs when people are over the age of 75 (though it can happen when someone is younger or older). These older adults typically live with a number of diseases and disabilities, including issues with cognition (thinking and memory skills).
- Family members and friends are under significant stress as caregivers.
- You, an older person you know, or their caregivers have trouble following complex treatments or managing relationships with many healthcare providers for multiple health problems.
How Can I Find a Geriatrics Healthcare Professional?
You can use our free Find a Geriatrics Health Professional tool to get an instant list of healthcare providers in your area who are trained in the special health care needs of older adults.
Search by city, state, or zip code or call 800-563-4916 to have a list mailed to you.
Last Updated August 2017