elderly man with dementia at a skilled nursing facility looking out the window

A Geriatric Doctor’s Role To a Person with Dementia

It’s no secret that seniors need a little bit of extra care to keep themselves safe from physical injury as they get older. But, typical healthcare providers are often ill-equipped to address the needs of senior populations. That’s where geriatric doctors come in. Geriatric doctors are people who specialize in caring for people over the age of 65. You might hear them referred to as geriatricians.  A geriatric doctor has a degree in a field related to internal or family medicine, but they have an extra one or two years of training in areas specifically related to elderly care. This training gives them experience in different conditions that largely affect older populations such as dementia, arthritis, heart disease, osteoporosis, or injury from falls. Geriatric doctor is an umbrella term for a large number of specialists. Let’s dive in and talk about how different geriatric doctors can help improve the quality of life for your elderly loved ones.

What Does a Geriatric Doctor Do?

Geriatric doctors cover a lot of bases when caring for your loved one. In many ways, the job of a geriatrician is more difficult than the job of a family medicine doctor. This is because older bodies respond to treatment differently. Additionally, cognitive disorders like dementia can make it hard for your loved one to properly communicate their pain or discomfort to them. But, geriatricians are trained to provide the highest quality care to your senior family members. Here are a few of the things they can do.

Focus on Senior-Specific Conditions

Family doctors definitely know a thing or two about things like dementia, incontinence, or delirium, but they don’t have a firm grasp on how this can affect seniors specifically. One of the best things about a geriatric doctor is that they more thoroughly understand different issues that predominantly affect the senior population. These are often called “geriatric syndromes.” Geriatric doctors often better understand how each of these conditions can play off of one another as well. For example, they understand that conditions like muscle weakness can put elderly individuals at a susceptibility for falls. With that in mind, they can craft better treatment plans or preventative measures that are more in-line with your loved one’s needs.

Long-Term Planning

When you see a family doctor for a cold or flu, it’s usually a one-and-done appointment. They might prescribe you some medications and give you guidelines for the near future, but you likely won’t need to go back to see them again unless the problems persist. With geriatric care, there is a greater focus on quality of life and patient goals. This means that your loved one will spend more time at each appointment to ensure that their needs are met.  This might include discussing priorities for healthcare if multiple conditions are affecting quality of life, creating and managing care plans, reviewing the use of all medications, and coordinating care with other health providers. They may also spend some time discussing the potential need for in-home or inpatient care facilities with you and your loved one. 

Preventative Care

A large part of geriatric healthcare is preventing problems from arising in the first place. Typically, this involves fall prevention, though it might encompass other facets such as nutrition or exercise regimens to help prevent heart disease, increase in weight, or other conditions.

How Do Seniors Benefit?

Geriatric doctors are highly beneficial for your loved one in multiple ways, especially if your loved one struggles with dementia.

Fewer Misdiagnoses

As seniors grow older, their cognitive function naturally declines. For individuals with dementia, it can make it even more difficult to communicate effectively through verbal language alone.  This makes it very hard for family doctors to assess the underlying cause and severity of their discomfort. Because of these factors, seniors are misdiagnosed more often than younger people. Geriatric doctors have special training in better understanding individuals with dementia. They are better equipped to help uncover the hidden meaning behind certain words, actions, or emotions to pinpoint the underlying cause of discomfort, even if these individuals can’t fully convey their thoughts. With help from you, geriatric doctors can give your loved one more appropriate care for their conditions and needs. 

Help for Multiple Conditions

Family doctors are usually great at addressing singular issues in younger patients. But elderly adults often have multiple ailments at a single time. Geriatricians are trained to better treat individuals with many medical conditions that all need to be addressed simultaneously.  This can mean fewer doctor visits for your loved one — one trip to the doctor might be enough to talk about arthritis pain, functional challenges, and mental health.  Not to mention, geriatricians can help your loved one manage multiple medications at once. Some medications may interfere with one another and cause adverse effects, and without familiarity of these interactions between common geriatric medications, it may be impossible to figure out which one is the problem.  Geriatric doctors can help with medication management to help avoid the risks of polypharmacy

Better Quality of Life

All of this culminates into the most important benefit — geriatricians will help improve your loved one’s quality of life. Having someone who is trained to provide specialized care for your family member will help them feel understood and cared for in a way that traditional family doctors may not be able to match. When your loved one is happy, so are you. Geriatricians are concerned about the caregiver’s happiness just as much as the patient. They will take some extra time to make sure you understand the implications of your loved one’s needs as well as how you can care for them when doctors are not around.

Geriatric Psychiatry

Geriatric doctors don’t just work to improve the physical health of your loved one. There are some geriatric doctors who specialize in mental health care. They are often referred to as geriatric psychiatrists. Mental health can be affected just as severely by age as physical health. In fact, at least one in four older adults experience some form of mental health condition. Many primary care physicians focus on physical health but overlook the mental aspects that may also be affecting your loved one’s quality of life. Geriatric psychiatrists understand how chronic disease and aging can affect the mental wellness of senior populations. Their care focuses on preventing, diagnosing, and treating emotional and mental health conditions in senior patients. If your loved one has dementia, it is likely that they also experience a co-occurring mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. Depression and anxiety are common with aging, so getting them addressed as soon as possible is essential. Additionally, physical pain and discomfort can be a large contributor to mental unwellness. Often, if physical health can be addressed, mental health can be improved alongside it. This is why it is essential for geriatric doctors to work together to create the most holistic care plan possible. Geriatric psychiatrists can help treat behavioral health conditions through a number of means. Primarily, medications are effective ways to alleviate symptoms associated with many mental health conditions. However, talk therapy may also be useful if your loved one is able to properly communicate with verbal language.

In Conclusion

Geriatric doctors specialize in addressing the health concerns and improving the quality of life for individuals over the age of 65. Here are the key things to know about geriatric doctors:
  • Geriatric doctors are family doctors with an extra one or two years of specialized training in senior-specific conditions.
  • They help with long-term planning, preventative care, and focus on conditions that are often unique to older populations.
  • Seniors benefit from geriatricians because they can help with multiple conditions at once, better understand seniors to avoid misdiagnosis, and lead to overall improvements in quality of life.
  • Some geriatric doctors focus on mental health. Geriatric psychiatrists are just as important as doctors that address physical concerns.
For geriatric doctors in every specialty, Lightyear Health is here. We offer everything from pain management support to behavioral health and wellness treatment, helping to give your loved one the most cutting-edge patient-focused care possible. Interested in learning more? Click here to speak with us about the difference we can make in you and your family member’s lives.   Sources: How seniors can avoid misdiagnosis | Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine Specialists in Aging: Do You Need a Geriatrician? | Johns Hopkins Medicine Seniors and Mental Health | Pan American Health Organization

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