The science and study of aging continue to grow in importance in the medical community as our society grows older. Between 2010 and 2030, the population aged 75 and older will grow from 5.8 million to 8.7 million, and from 2030 to 2050, this demographic will more than double to 19 million.
Medical advances and treatment for illnesses and conditions associated with aging – including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease – extend older people’s life span by many years. The longer lives mean these seniors need medical treatment that focuses on their needs and challenges. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) believes that many more geriatricians are needed worldwide (and this need will continue to expand in the coming years), but it’s important for caregivers to understand this physician specialty and how it differs from a gerontologist.
What is a gerontologist?
Not to be confused with geriatricians, gerontologists are specialists in a variety of professions that focus on the aging population. For example, some physical therapists, social workers and mental health specialists are also gerontologists. Not all gerontologists are physicians, though some physicians are also gerontologists. It’s necessary to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in gerontology to become a gerontologist.
The field includes three main areas:
- Research Gerontology: The focus of researching the best treatment and living situations for older adults.
- Applied Gerontology: Includes social workers, physicians and senior living administrators working directly with the older population. (Their gerontology degrees enhance their careers.)
- Administrative Gerontology: The area of working with companies and facilities to focus on the programming and lifestyles of older adults.
Mary Winners, MSG, CPG, and a gerontologist/geriatric care manager, suggests working with a professional in gerontology/geriatrics to help your loved one plan for growing older. Her company, About Senior Solutions, works with clients to implement a visionary aging plan. She believes understanding what your senior wants, is capable of, and can afford to do is the first step toward ensuring they can enjoy their life comfortably for many years to come.
Finding the right geriatrician in your community who can help with these conversations will make life choices and medical management much more manageable.
What is a geriatrician?
A geriatrician is a medical doctor whose primary focus is on the care and treatment of older people. Geriatricians focus on integrating and overseeing the various types of care some older adults need to ensure they get the best medical attention possible.
Not all older adults need to consult a geriatrician. For example, suppose an 80-year-old is in good health and taking only a few medications, such as a statin to control cholesterol and a vitamin D supplement. In that case, there’s no need to see a geriatrician.
If your loved one is having any of these problems, however, a geriatrician might be helpful:
- If there is memory loss that seems to be getting worse over time
- If they are on multiple (three or more) medications, particularly if various specialists prescribe them
- If their mobility is limited
- If they are hospitalized and need coordinated care
The process of growing older is unique for everyone. Some adapt easily with few health problems, while others are challenged with multiple complications or resist accepting their limitations as they age. Just as children need pediatricians to manage their specific health issues, older adults need geriatricians.
If you think your older loved one would benefit from seeing a physician who specializes in caring for older people, ask your doctor for a referral to a geriatrician and make an appointment for you and your older adult to meet with them together.