What Is a Geriatrician?
Geriatricians are regular doctors who have additional training in treating older adults, especially those ages 65 years and up, who often have complex medical issues. They focus on keeping you functional and helping you maintain your quality of life. Geriatric doctors understand caregivers' roles and work with family members, too.
The U.S. faces a serious shortage of geriatric doctors for a growing older adult population. According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 55.8 million older adults in the U.S. Research shows 30 percent of older adults need geriatric care. Each geriatrician can help up to 700 patients, and right now, there are only about 7,100 certified geriatricians. That covers only a small number of the older adults who need care today.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, more than 12,000 geriatricians will be needed by 2030.
Geriatrician vs. gerontologist
Both of these experts focus on supporting older adults, just in different ways.
Geriatricians provide medical treatment and care for older people today. If you're 65 years old or older, a geriatrician can help you understand your needs and how they might change as you get older. Geriatricians focus on preventing and managing illnesses that may affect you differently as you get older.
Gerontologists, on the other hand, study aging and the physical, mental, and social impact of the aging process. Gerontology is considered multidisciplinary, which means experts in this field can be interested in a range of subjects, like public policy, psychology, or even economics. Their goal is to teach people about the problems older adults face and find future solutions.
What Does a Geriatric Doctor Do?
This type of doctor usually focuses on a few key goals. They:
Diagnose and treat certain conditions
If you're an older adult, it's common to have one or more long-term health issues that geriatric doctors can treat. The National Council on Aging reports that nearly 95% of adults age 60 years and older have at least one life-long condition, and nearly 80% have two or more.
Specifically, geriatricians focus on the following areas that tend to affect older adults in greater numbers:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Balance issues
- Heart disease
Work with your care team
While a geriatrician will generally manage your overall care, they also work with others on your health care team, such as:
- Family members
- Family physicians
- Social workers
- Physical therapists
- Mental health experts
Promote healthy aging
Geriatricians are trained to pay close attention to your overall quality of life and health goals. Your office visits with them may take longer than you're used to because they'll likely ask questions about your lifestyle, family, and community. This gives them a fuller picture of your life.
Education and Training of Geriatric Doctor
Geriatricians go through the same education and training as regular doctors before specializing in geriatric care. Depending on their program, they can spend anywhere between 7 and 15 years before being able to practice medicine on their own. The stages of becoming a geriatric doctor are:
Medical school. In general, medical school takes about 4 years to complete. Students learn about science, the latest treatments and diagnoses, problem-solving, prevention and care, communication skills, and medical ethics.
Choosing a focus. During the last year of medical school, students decide which type of medicine they will practice based on factors like personal interests and clinical experience. Those interested in geriatrics will apply for a residency program in this field.
Residency training. During graduate medical education, resident doctors receive hands-on training in accredited programs. From anywhere between 3 and 10 years, residents train with doctors in their field.
Fellowship. After this, some may choose to apply to a fellowship program, which usually includes 1 year of clinical experience—sometimes with another year focused on research.
Specialization. Before being able to practice medicine, a doctor needs to get an unrestricted medical license to practice in the U.S. and Canada, as well as a state license.
Board certification. Some may also seek board certification to show their expertise, which involves passing tests and peer evaluations by specific boards.
Ongoing training. Once board-certified, geriatric doctors keep their licenses and certifications through an ongoing professional development program called Maintenance of Certification, which helps them stay up-to-date on guidelines, standards, and best practices.
Which Conditions Does a Geriatric Doctor Treat?
Geriatric doctors are experts in many of the age-related conditions that you might deal with as you age. That includes:
It's common to develop balance and movement problems as you get older. One in four older adults fall each year in the U.S., and one in five falls cause an injury, such as broken bones or a head injury. Geriatric doctors can help lessen your odds of a fall.
A fall assessment helps geriatric doctors discover and address your fall risk factors, which can include medications you take and conditions you may have, like:
- Vision problems
- Long-term diseases like heart problems, arthritis, or dementia
- Nerve, joint, or feet problems that make it hard to walk
- Bone loss
- Mental decline
- Vertigo (feeling dizzy)
- Environmental hazards (slippery rugs, poor lighting, steps, etc.)
They may then suggest care and treatment choices to help keep falls from happening, such as:
- Exercise and training programs to improve your balance, strength, and walking ability
- Aids like canes and walkers that help with your coordination and reaching for things
- Medication changes
- Tips to make your home safer, such as adding grab bars, non-slip bathroom mats, and better lighting
Geriatric doctors are experts at diagnosing the causes of dementia. Using a combination of memory, ability, and mood tests, along with blood work and brain scans, geriatric doctors can offer treatment options and help you (and your caregivers) plan for the future.
Urinary incontinence (uncontrolled peeing) is a common problem among older adults. It's also one you may not want to tell your doctor about because of feelings of embarrassment or the belief that it's a normal part of aging and may not need treatment.
Geriatric doctors are familiar with treating this condition. They'll likely first suggest a urodynamic test, which shows how well your bladder can hold and empty urine. They can then make a range of suggestions to help you better control your bladder, including:
- Assistive devices (such as disposable liners or underwear)
- Urination schedules
- Biofeedback (therapy used to strengthen and control your pelvic floor)
Studies show that depression affects about 14% of older adults who need home health care and nearly 12% of older hospitalized patients.
Depression in older people doesn't always look the same as depression in younger adults. Its symptoms often appear to come from other medical conditions. For example, dizziness or shortness of breath can be a sign of depression in an older patient but could easily be mistaken for heart disease.
Depression treatment of older adults can include:
- Group cognitive behavioral therapy, which works to change patterns of thinking that negatively affect you.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy, which can help improve any relationships that may be closely linked to your depression.
- Group life-review/reminiscence therapy, which suggests you zoom out and see your life as a story to help you find a more balanced view on life.
Geriatricians are trained to check your mood and symptoms of depression.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death and a major cause of morbidity, especially in older adults. Geriatric doctors see many people with heart disease or who have already had a stroke or heart attack and can coordinate care with other doctors, including cardiologists.
Reasons to See a Geriatric Doctor
What should I expect during an appointment with a geriatrician?
You can expect the following during your visit:
A review of your medical and social history
A physical and functional test, depression scale, and a small mental assessment
Update of your medications to make your care plan specific to you
Geriatric care assessment to figure out your quality of life and make suggestions
If I see a geriatrician, can I still see my family doctor whom I have gone to for many years?
Yes. It's important to see a doctor who makes you feel comfortable to express your questions or concerns as you work through your care. Family doctors can often still care for you as you age.
Because geriatricians are a type of family doctor who have specialized training in caring for older patients, you may not need to see both doctors. If you find that your health care goals become more complex as you age, it may make sense to switch to only see a geriatric doctor.
However, you can always take guidance from your geriatrician to your family doctor.
How Do I Find a Geriatrician?
An online search is a good place to start. Visit the American Geriatrics Society or Health In Aging website for doctor directories and information. You can also search for "geriatricians near me" to explore local choices.
Outside of online research, you can check with the nearest hospital or university medical center, which may have geriatricians who are available to see new patients.
How Do I Choose a Geriatric Doctor?
To find the geriatrician that best meets your needs, consider:
Check to see if the specialist takes your insurance and has an office close to your home. Then you may want to ask about office hours and how their office answers patient issues after hours. See if they also offer any at-home care services.
Education and training
You can ask a geriatrician or their office about any special certifications or training they have. You can also ask if they're connected to an academic medical center, which usually offers the most recent advances in care.
Communication and collaboration
Ask the geriatric doctor how they work with other specialists like cardiologists or pulmonologists, which is important to address conditions that may overlap or require different medications.
It's also important to be sure your geriatrician cares about your goals and offers the programs or services you need. Some may offer courses for exercise and avoiding falls, for example.
You'll want to feel comfortable expressing your concerns and questions about your care, so it's important to have a doctor with the right personality for you. Consider writing a list of questions that are important to you and setting up a quick conversation with the geriatrician before you commit.
As you get older, it's important to find a doctor who specializes in conditions that may affect you. Geriatricians can be a great resource for preventing and treating conditions that can come with age, and they can work with you and those who are already helping with your health care needs.
Geriatric Doctor FAQs
- At what age should you see a geriatrician?
If you're 65 years old or older with concerns about changes you're seeing in your health, you should see a geriatric doctor, especially if getting through the day becomes tough to manage.
- What is the term geriatric doctor?
This is the name for a doctor who specializes in caring for older adults, usually ages 65 years and up. It's the same as a geriatrician.
- What should you expect from a geriatric doctor?
Geriatric doctors are big-picture thinkers, so you can expect them to look at different things that affect your physical abilities and overall well-being the most. They'll focus on wellness and preventive treatment, your mental health, managing long-term medical conditions, and helping you with any issues specific to older adults, such as memory concerns and falls.
- What is the difference between geriatrician and geriatrics?
Geriatrics is the medical specialty of caring for older adults. A geriatrician is a doctor who specializes in managing the unique health issues of older adults.