Geriatric doctors, also called geriatricians, specialize in caring for aging adults who often have complex medical issues. They focus particularly on keeping you functional and helping you maintain your quality of life. Geriatric doctors understand caregivers’ roles and work with family members, too.
The US faces a shortage of geriatric doctors for a growing older adult population. According to the American Geriatrics Society, we need roughly 20,000 geriatric doctors to meet older adults’ needs. But right now we have less than 7,300 certified geriatricians.
What Does a Geriatric Doctor Do?
Geriatric doctors diagnose and treat issues that affect older adults. Their patients often have one or more chronic health issues. The National Council on Aging reports that 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and 68% have at least two.
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
- Community-based service providers
- Physical therapists
Education and Training
Geriatricians complete medical school and a residency in addition to gaining a medical license and becoming board certified.
The steps to becoming a geriatric doctor include:
- Finish four years of medical school
- Complete three to five years in a full-time residency training program
- Obtain an unrestricted medical license to practice in the US and Canada
- Pass an exam created by a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialties
What Conditions Does a Geriatric Doctor Treat?
Geriatric doctors have expertise in many of the age-related conditions and illnesses that older adults face. Conditions geriatricians commonly treat include:
Aging people often develop balance and mobility problems. As such, geriatric doctors treat a lot of falls. Three out of 10 people over the age of 70 fall each year, and 90% of broken hips in people over 70 result from falls. Fortunately, there are ways geriatric doctors can help lessen your risk of falling.
All physicians seeing older patients should perform a fall assessment. This tool helps geriatric doctors discover and address your fall risk factors, which can include medications you take and conditions such as:
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 (involuntary peeing) is a common problem among older adults. It’s also one they don’t always want to tell their doctor about. This may be due to embarrassment or the belief that it’s a normal part of aging.
Studies have found that 29% to 52% of older adults in nursing homes are depressed. Older people are less likely to have depression if they still live in their communities, where the rate is more like 1% to 5%.
Geriatricians are trained to assess their patients’ moods. Depression in older people doesn’t always look the same as depression in younger adults. Its symptoms often appear to result 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.
Doctors must make treatment decisions carefully, especially if you’re already taking a lot of medications or have other complicating medical problems. The geriatrician must weigh the drawbacks of treatments like surgery or medications against your quality of life.
Reasons to See a Geriatric Doctor
While there’s no set age to start seeing a geriatric doctor, most see patients who are 65 years and older. You should consider going to one if you:
- Become frail or impaired
- Have multiple conditions that require complex care and medication routines
- Can no longer get adequate support from your caregivers