Geriatrician vs. Gerontologist: Specialists in Aging Well
As we age into our sixties and beyond, most of us develop more complicated health needs and can greatly benefit from the care of a geriatric doctor. Known as a geriatrician, this specialist is an expert in common conditions and challenges faced by patients over 65. In addition to the standard medical training received by family practice or internal medicine physicians, American geriatricians undergo an additional 1-2 years of specialty training and pass a targeted board exam. Their knowledge base, daily experience, and even their practice standards (that is, how they run their medical office) all support the best possible care of a patient in this age group.
Then, there is a broader group of professionals called gerontologists. The Oxford definition of gerontology is “the scientific study of old age, the process of aging, and the particular problems of old people.” The first use of the term was in 1903 by Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff, who believed that specialized attention to later life was as important as pediatrics is to early life.
While geriatricians fall under the general category of gerontology, not all gerontologists are doctors. However, gerontologists can be valuable care partners, as they share the understanding that an older body has different needs and capabilities compared to a younger body, and it requires appropriately tailored care. Gerontologists as a group approach senior wellbeing with a holistic lens on physical, mental, emotional, and social factors.
Geriatricians and other professionals under the vast gerontology umbrella have together contributed to our increasing life expectancy in the US, as well as enhanced quality of life in our later years.
Why Choose a Geriatrician?
Most patients become interested in seeing a geriatrician when they hit their sixties, but some need geriatric care earlier. The most common reason to see a geriatrician earlier in life is the development of a chronic condition that more commonly occurs in older people. Examples include osteoporosis, dementia, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, which can occur in younger individuals due to a variety of causes (like genetic predisposition or lifestyle influences).
Other conditions often treated by geriatric doctors include hearing and vision problems, depression, insomnia, incontinence, vertigo, and injuries due to fall. Geriatricians are highly qualified to diagnose and treat mobility and balance issues, as well as cognitive impairment and memory loss. These specialists keep up with the latest and greatest therapies, equipment, lifestyle accommodations, and medications, which they can leverage for the best treatment plan for the individual patient.
Other good candidates for geriatrician care are those taking multiple medications for chronic conditions, as this physician is expert in their side effects, interactions, and alternatives. Because of their average patient population, geriatricians habitually work with complex healthcare routines.
Other benefits of a geriatric doctor is that they are used to working with a whole network of people involved in a patient’s care. This network can include the patient’s family, paid caregiver, therapist, pharmacist, social worker, and others. A geriatrician understands the importance of each person and service provider in delivering the best care and outcomes for the patient.
Lastly, a patient will typically benefit from longer appointments with a geriatrician, meaning more time to explore and understand the patient’s condition and care goals. Geriatric patients usually experience less rush and more attention in treatment by a geriatrician.
So, What Is a Gerontologist?
If a geriatrician is a specific type of physician, what does a gerontologist do? Gerontologists run the gamut across social workers, nurses, home care providers, researchers, psychologists, public policy-makers, and even dentists. While they provide different services, they work from a shared perspective that older adults have particular needs that must be addressed somewhat differently than those of younger adults.
The benefits of a gerontologist to society are numerous as the US senior population grows by about 10,000 new 65-year-olds per day. Gerontologists develop structures, practices, and approaches that better support older adults in living healthy and safe lives. They even help dispel negative stereotypes about aging, proving that its challenges are manageable and quality of life can remain high through our later decades.
Geriatric Medicine and Accessibility
While it’s wonderful news that gerontology and geriatric medicine have made a substantial impact on the lives of American seniors, the drawback is that there is currently only 1 geriatrician for about every 10,000 senior patients in the US. This is due to a variety of factors, including the large size of the Baby Boomer population and the fact that geriatrics is one of the lower-paid medical specialties. However, increased demand may influence the number of doctors who switch to the specialty and moreover, gerontological research and the spectrum of professionals in gerontology can help educate all healthcare professionals in better care for older patients.
Whether you are seeing a geriatrician or general practitioner, you should learn whether they accept your insurance, what hospitals and offices they work in, whether they provide at-home care, and how they coordinate with other specialists that might be involved in your care. If it is a GP rather than a certified geriatrician, it may be beneficial to ask about their experience with patients over age 60.
It is vital that you feel listened-to by your doctor. You may want to ask how they make themselves available for communication; do they have a call-back or texting system? Can you schedule video calls easily when you have questions?
You will also want to discover their approach to your holistic care; how do they feel about prescribing lots of medications? What non-medication therapies do they often prescribe? How do they build a care plan for each of their patients? And do they offer any educational opportunities for living a healthier lifestyle?
Taking Advantage of Home Care Benefits
Gerontology is a much-needed discipline that addresses the unique needs of senior adults. If your loved one needs home care, our VetAssist mission is to make home care easily and quickly accessible for those who qualify through the VA Pension with Aid and Attendance benefit. Veterans Home Care can help you determine whether you or your loved one will be eligible to receive the benefit, which can cover some or all of the cost of home care, and we make it easy to apply. Chat with us via our website, or call us at (888) 314-6075.
By Sylvia Trein, staff writer