smiling nurse holding hand of happy elderly woman outdoor at the park

Geriatric Behavioral Health: Everything You Need To Know

As physical signs of aging begin to set in, it’s important to get your loved one the therapy and care they need in order to continue excelling through activities of daily living.

That said, their mental wellbeing is equally important, and it’s unfortunately often an afterthought. 

In fact, behavioral health and physical health go hand in hand to allow your loved one to have the best quality of life with prime holistic health.

The good news is that behavioral health can be diagnosed, managed, and treated just like physical ailments. 

Here is everything you need to know about geriatric behavioral health, as well as how it can enhance you and your loved one’s relationship.

What Is Geriatric Behavioral Health?

While mental health and behavioral health are very closely related, they aren’t interchangeable. Mental health refers to a specific subset of behavioral health, which is more of an umbrella term.

With that in mind, behavioral health is the connection between behaviors and the health or well-being of the body and mind. In a sense, it can be thought of as how one expresses their mental health outwardly.

Mental health looks more at one’s thoughts, whereas behavioral health looks at actions. When assessed together, it can shine a light on a number of internal stressors that your loved one might be feeling.

Geriatric behavioral health is the specific area of behavioral health that focuses on elderly populations and their unique situations. Geriatric behavioral health specialists have a wide understanding of diseases associated with the elderly, like Alzheimer’s and depression. They are able to apply a level of empathy and compassion to these individuals that the average geriatric psychologist might miss.

Signs of Poor Behavioral Health

Signs of aging are often inevitable. However, there are certain outward behaviors that are abnormal and may warrant a visit to your loved one’s doctor.

Taking note of your family member’s behaviors is one of the most accurate ways to gauge how they might be feeling from within. 

These are some important telltale signs that something might be wrong:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Angry outbursts
  • Sleep and appetite changes
  • Severe memory loss
  • Loss of cognition
  • Hallucinations or confusion

Recognizing these signs early on can allow a geriatric specialist to intervene and offer treatment before it becomes too late.

Geriatric Behavioral Health Specialists

If your loved one experiences symptoms of poor behavioral health, it’s important to take them to a specialist who can give them the care they need. But since behavioral health is such a broad umbrella term, there are a number of different professions that can offer assistance.

Geriatric Psychiatrists & Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practioners (PMHNPs)

Geriatric psychiatrists and psychiatric mental health nurse practioners (PMHNPs) seek to understand the root cause of mental illness by assessing biological and psychological aspects of your loved one’s life. They focus on prevention, evaluation, and treatment of emotional disorders in an attempt to improve their quality of life.

These types of specialists are trained to help with a number of mental disorders, though they may have a keen eye for disturbances that are directly related to aging such as dementia, social withdrawal, loss of motor skills, and more.

Older adults are at an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. Often, older adults are misdiagnosed or undertreated because primary care physicians just don’t have the specialty practice to fully empathize with their situation.

This is where geriatric psychiatrists and geriatric PMHNPs can really make a difference, as they are able to give a level of personal care that generalized physicians are just unable to. In addition, these specialists are able to prescribe both medication and talk therapy in order to bring your loved one relief.

Lightyear Health’s behavioral health team is fully committed to redefining the aging process from the inside out. Our licensed professionals can give a level of care to your loved one that can help improve their quality life from the inside out.

Physical Therapists

It might seem weird to think about physical therapists providing relief for mental health disorders, but physical health and behavioral health are closely intertwined.

Chronic health conditions are common in older adults. About 80% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and as many as 50% have two or more. It’s been found that mental health disorders like depression are more common among people who also have a co-occurring disease.

Geriatric physical therapists focus on providing rehabilitative exercises and stretches to older individuals in order to alleviate chronic pain or restore movement to injured parts of the body. They can also help to prevent further injuries by teaching practices and tips in order to make activities of daily living easier.

By working with your loved one to reduce their physical pain, they can restore their independence and enhance their self-confidence. This helps to boost their mood and reduce some of the adverse outward behaviors that they may have otherwise exemplified.

Why Is Geriatric Behavioral Health Important?

Behavioral health at any age is important, however geriatric behavioral health is arguably even more necessary to help address the unique circumstances that come with age.

It Can Overcome Communication-Related Barriers to Care

As adults grow older, certain diseases can make it more difficult for them to receive the care they require. For instance, severe forms of dementia can cause elderly individuals to be nonverbal or develop other language issues, making it impossible for them to convey feelings of pain or discomfort. This can lead to angry outbursts, wandering, or other unwanted behaviors.

If your loved one loses the ability to properly communicate, it can make it almost impossible on your end to understand why some of their abnormal behaviors are occurring. However, a geriatric behavioral health specialist can help.

Geriatric specialists are able to recognize that certain behaviors may relate to underlying causes. They can use their resources and advanced empathy for these situations to uncover what might be causing your loved one to feel a little off so that they can implement the proper course of treatment.

It Can Enhance the Caregiver’s Life, Too

Taking care of a loved one is rewarding, and there are plenty of memorable moments that you and your family members will undoubtedly share. With that said, it can become stressful and inundating over time, especially when your loved one exhibits unwanted outward behaviors.

Geriatric specialists can diagnose and treat the co-occurring problems that are causing your loved one to act like a different version of themselves. Not only can this lift the burden and responsibility from your end, but it can make it more enjoyable to be around your loved one knowing that they are as happy as can possibly be.

What Does Behavioral Health Treatment Look Like?

The treatment that your loved one receives will vary based on the underlying causes of their abnormal behaviors as well as the type of specialist they see. 

With that said, here are a few common options that are available to your elderly family member:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Some of the underlying behaviors that your loved one exhibits may be related to feelings of depression, anxiety, or isolation that is common with age. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on shifting their ways of thinking to lead to healthier behaviors.
  • Medications: In addition to talk therapy, a geriatric specialist may prescribe medications to address underlying mental conditions. Antidepressants, for example, are effective methods for treating a number of mental disorders. Doctors may even prescribe pain relief medications as a form of treatment if the co-occurring cause of abnormal behavior is related to physical illness.
  • Rehabilitative Therapy: As your loved one grows older, they may lose bone density and muscle strength, putting them at a higher risk for falls and other injuries. In order to get them back on their feet to enhance their quality of life and positive outlook, rehabilitative therapy may be prescribed.
  • Occupational Therapy: A lot of mental decline or behavioral change in an elderly individual’s life is related to a loss of independence as they become unable to complete activities or tasks. Occupational therapists work with your loved one’s specific needs to help find new ways for them to get back to what they love most.

Behavioral health treatment for your loved one looks different depending on the severity of their symptoms and other factors. However, as you can see, there are plenty of high quality methods that can enhance their quality of life and give you peace of mind.

Where To Get Behavioral Health Care for a Loved One

If you get the sense that your loved one is exhibiting abnormal behaviors that are unlike their usual self, you may want to get them assessed by a geriatric physician. The good news is that  there are plenty of options.

For one, you can see their primary care physician. This is a good option because they already have a good relationship with their PCP. But the main drawback is that PCPs do not have the extensive training that geriatric specialists do when it comes to understanding the unique circumstances of elderly individuals.

Lightyear Health is at the forefront of a patient-empowered movement in medical care for older adults. We are working to create a world where everyone has access to experts in geriatric and dementia care.

By partnering with community teams, primary care physicians, and other healthcare providers, we add a special touch through specialized layers of coordinate care that focuses on maintaining quality of life.

From depression and dementia care to pain management and fall prevention, we can address the causes of your loved one’s behavioral health decline from the inside out to ensure that their life remains as healthy as ever.

The Takeaways

  • Behavioral health is a combination of physical and mental wellbeing. Essentially, it is the  actions that people outwardly express due to their inner thoughts and feelings. While it’s essential at every point in life, elderly individuals have special considerations that make behavioral health even more necessary.
  • As dementia and other barriers set in, it can make it more challenging for elderly individuals to properly communicate physical or mental discomfort. This can lead to adverse outward behaviors that are unlike what you’re used to, such as angry outbursts, irritability, isolation, depression, or disinterest.
  • Specialists like psychiatrists, psychologists, and even physical therapists can address the unique concerns of your loved one with a level of empathy that primary care physicians just cannot match. The end result is a better quality of life for your family, as well as you as a caretaker.

To learn more about getting the best behavioral health care possible for the people you love, get in touch with Lightyear Health today.



Behavioral Health vs Mental Health: What’s the Difference? | Alvernia University

Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older | Alzheimer’s Disease and Healthy Aging | CDC

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? | American Psychological Association

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