There are medical specialists for all stages of life. Children have pediatricians, women have obstetricians and aging and older adults have gerontologists. Most people are familiar with pediatrics and obstetrics – pediatricians focus on children’s care as well as growth and development, while obstetricians concentrate on the health and well-being of both the mother and the baby during pregnancy. But what does a gerontologist do?
Gerontologists are detectives with heart
Aging can be highly challenging for many older adults, and gerontologists focus on keeping older individuals as healthy as possible for as long as possible. According to Eugene Lammers, MD, a gerontologist, “Patients who seek out geriatric care usually have chronic conditions that contribute to their function or lack thereof.”
A good gerontologist will create a plan to improve the quality of life for medically complex patients. Putting together this plan involves a complete review of medications, physical and occupational therapy needs, evaluating the mental state of the patient and assessing the need for health aides or companions. Gerontologists need to be compassionate but thorough to help seniors. Patience and kindness are also essential qualities for these doctors who are often interacting with adults who are in fragile health, have memory problems and are resistant to talking honestly with a new and unfamiliar doctor. Gerontologists also must communicate effectively with the patient’s caregiver for a complete plan of action.
What does a gerontologist do?
Gerontologists are trained to focus on how illness affects the elderly in contrast to the general population, which is why they can be such important resources for caregivers and families with concerns about older relatives.
Not all seniors need a gerontologist. For example, some 95-year-olds present medically as a healthy 65-year-old, while some 65-year-olds have the physical and mental limitations typical of a much older person. Caregivers may need to find a gerontologist for their elder family members for a variety of reasons, including:
- Multiple prescription medications
- Chronic illness
- Chronic pain
- An illness that, when treated, aggravates another condition (medication or other treatments)
- Functional or mental decline
- Dementia or Alzheimer’s and knowing the difference between them
If you find that you are spending hours on the phone contacting your family member’s doctors or driving your older relative to and from multiple medical appointments every week, then it’s time to seek out a gerontologist who can help you to manage the patient’s treatment plan.
The gerontologist needs to understand the multiple prescribed and over-the-counter medications that your loved one takes. Sometimes drugs—particularly opioids and other pain medications—can have interactions that can be dangerous or counterproductive. Unfortunately, when multiple doctors are writing prescriptions, they may not pay close attention to these possibilities.
When does someone need a gerontologist?
In medical circles, there is something known as “geriatric syndrome.” According to the Nursing 2021 Journal, geriatric assessment tools are used to assess these symptoms:
- Functional and instrumental (higher-level functional) activities of daily living
- Gait and balance
- Visual acuity
- Fall or tripping risk
- Skin breakdown
These difficulties indicate that a gerontologist would be beneficial for the caregiver and the patient for managing care. Other issues to look out for include weight loss and decreased appetite, bladder control problems and pressure sores on the body. If you suspect your family member is experiencing any of these problems, it’s a good time to find a gerontologist.
Who works with a gerontologist?
As the Baby Boomers age into their senior years, more and more health care specialists are needed to make sure they are properly cared for and stay as healthy and independent as possible. According to the Census Bureau, there are 73 million Baby Boomers, and by 2030 they will all have reached the age of 65. As they age, the care they need will increase, and much of that care will be done by unpaid family members juggling many other responsibilities including having jobs and raising their children.
A study conducted by Go Health found that:
- Millennials and Gen-Xers spend 11.5 hours each week taking care of their parents’ healthcare. They think they’ll spend 14 to 16 years helping aging parents.
- Fifty-nine percent of Gen-Xers and half of millennials took on the caregiving role after a parent became seriously ill or injured.
- Seven in 10 Gen-Xers (69 percent) and three in five millennials (59 percent) help their parents to pay their medical bills.
- Roughly two in five Gen-Xers and millennials spent more than $10,000 of their own money on caregiving expenses in 2020.
As a generation, Baby Boomers have spent a lot of time taking care of themselves, and for most, this won’t change as they age into their later years. That doesn’t mean this generation won’t need outside help. Caregivers who find a gerontologist to work with as their family members grow older will benefit from the skills and knowledge of many experts focusing on helping the aging population, including:
- Physical and occupational therapist
- Registered dietitian Pharmacist
- Geriatric psychiatrist
- Geriatric nurse
- Certified diabetes educator
- Social worker
- Geriatric psychiatrist
A gerontologist can relieve the burden of finding all of these specialists for the caregiver by having referrals ready and advising which are necessary.
How do you find a gerontologist?
According to the American Geriatrics Society, there are 7,000 practicing gerontologists in the United States today. They estimate that they would need almost double that amount to serve all those needing geriatric care. Finding a good gerontologist before you are in serious need of one could save you a lot of stress and anxiety if something happens to your loved one.
If you are ready to find a gerontologist for your family member, go to the Health In Aging website and use their search tool, or ask your primary care physician to refer you to a gerontologist in your area. Take care of your family’s health—as well as yours—with the support of a good gerontologist.