geriatrician conversating with elderly women on a wheel chair outdoors

What Is a Geriatric Specialist? What They Do, Benefits and the Bottom Line

As we age, our health needs become more unique (and often more prominent). While primary care physicians know a thing or two about the diseases that are most common in elderly individuals, they are often ill-equipped to tackle all of the specifics.

That’s why it’s necessary for seniors to see specialists who are trained to be more cognizant and empathetic to the health problems that are most common in older populations.

These specialists are called geriatric specialists, or geriatricians, and they’re essential healthcare professionals for elderly individuals. 

Let’s learn more about what they do and how they can benefit your loved one’s quality of life.

What Does a Geriatrician Do?

You probably went to a pediatrician when you were a kid, as these doctors specialize in the unique problems and challenges that occur in children. A geriatrician can be thought of as pretty much the same thing, except they focus on older adults rather than younger ones.

Geriatricians are fully trained medical doctors that have graduated from medical school and completed residency requirements. They’re also certified in internal or family medicine and have passed the Geriatric Medicine Certification Examination.

Specialized Treatment

There are a number of diseases that are more common in older adults as opposed to other populations, such as dementia. Geriatricians have an advanced understanding of these illnesses and how they can impact the lives of older adults.

Conditions that a geriatrician specializes in treating include:

  • Dementia
  • Arthritis
  • Incontinence
  • Hearing and vision loss
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Loss of bone density
  • Balance issues
  • Sleep disturbances

Geriatricians don’t just focus on physical health. A field of healthcare called geriatric psychiatry focuses on the mental health issues that become more common with age, such as depression or anxiety. 

They may work in conjunction with social workers or occupational therapists to help elderly individuals learn new ways of thinking and behaving so that they can get the most out of their lives.

Care Coordination

A geriatrician’s work doesn’t stop at diagnosing and treating conditions. They also act as a point of contact between other healthcare providers to help keep track of medications or treatment plans.

This is helpful for individuals with multiple different conditions, as it makes sure that proper care is being given across the board.


Geriatricians are most concerned with their patient’s quality of life. This means that when they’re done doing work inside the office, the goal is for elderly individuals to continue healthy living outside

Geriatricians will educate individuals on exercise and nutrition, mental health coping strategies, transitions, and living environments to help prevent problems down the road or reduce existing issues from home. 

Benefits of Working With Geriatricians

If your loved one isn’t getting the best course of treatment from their primary care physician (PCP) alone, it may be because they don’t fully understand their unique needs. PCPs are professionals and are highly necessary, but they should be considered generalists when it comes to geriatric healthcare. In other words, it may be time to find someone with extra training.

Long-Term Treatment

Most primary care physicians may meet with their patients once and then ask them to follow up once after a few weeks. However, since most conditions in elderly individuals like dementia or arthritis are chronic, it’s important that doctors are able to meet with them consistently to monitor the symptoms. 

Geriatricians will meet with your loved one more frequently than a PCP in order to address their needs as they progress. Additionally, each appointment is usually scheduled for longer so that you or your family have enough time to address questions and concerns.

Individualized Care

One of the biggest benefits of geriatricians is that they can better understand and empathize with the challenges presented with aging. A report found that nearly 39% of PCPs frequently feel uncomfortable addressing questions about Alzheimer’s, a common disease among elderly individuals. Despite that, 82% of PCPs said they are on the front lines of dementia care.

Geriatricians, on the other hand, have undergone extensive training to make them more equipped to address health problems most often associated with aging. This can give your loved one higher quality care and make you feel more comfortable that they are getting the treatment necessary.

Additionally, there are some barriers and challenges to geriatric care such as cognitive, language, or memory impairment. Geriatricians are trained to be able to deal with these obstacles to address your loved one’s needs.

Coordinated Care

If you’re a caregiver for an elderly person, then you already know how tiresome it can be to relay information between their primary care physician, orthopedic specialists, psychiatrist, social workers, etc. However, a geriatrician can work to meet multiple needs in one fell swoop.

Geriatricians can excel in helping individuals with multiple health conditions. Additionally, they can relay information between other specialty providers when necessary to help alleviate the burden from you.

Not to mention, geriatricians can help to manage multiple medications when required.

How To Choose a Geriatrician

Choosing the right geriatrician can be important for you and your family member, as it can help to dictate the quality of care received. There are a few simple things to look for.


You’ll want to make sure that the geriatric specialist has availability at the time of day that your loved one prefers to meet. Additionally, check to see if they take the right insurance or if they provide any at-home services, such as telemedicine, to make it easier on your loved one to get care.


Check to make sure the doctor has special certifications and academic background in treating elderly populations. Some primary care physicians may not have completed the certification requirements, so it never hurts to ask beforehand.


Find out how the geriatrician coordinates care between other specialists like psychiatrists or cardiologists. Also, see if they’re able to contact you and your loved one through your preferred method, such as email or phone call.

You may also want to see if they offer messaging services or face-to-face meetings on smartphones or computers.


You want to make sure that the geriatrician will be on the same page as you and your loved one. Make sure that your goals and preferred treatment practices are in line and be sure to ask what other programs or services they might be able to offer. 

For example, if you’ve found that occupational therapy has been particularly helpful for your loved one, make sure the geriatrician is familiar enough with this to help your loved one continue this care. 

If your loved one doesn’t like their geriatrician, that’s okay! Keep working until you find one where they feel most comfortable.

When Is a Geriatrician Recommended?

It can be hard to tell exactly when it’s a good idea to switch from a primary care physician to a geriatrician. 

While there is no right age to start seeing a geriatric specialist, there are a few times when seeing one can be helpful:

  • If your loved one suffers from multiple conditions.
  • If functional decline or physical frailty is prominent.
  • If your loved one has a disease related to aging like incontinence or dementia.
  • If one treatment has adverse effects on another condition.
  • If your loved one needs help managing multiple medications.

Talk to your loved one to see if going to a geriatrician is something they prefer. Remember that there are multiple subsets of geriatric care, such as behavioral health and wellness or social work, that may be more applicable to their specific needs.

The Bottom Line

Geriatricians are specialists who are trained to diagnose and treat conditions associated with aging. They have a better understanding of diseases like dementia, arthritis, or incontinence and are more effective than PCPs for the unique needs of senior populations.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Geriatricians diagnose and treat health conditions while also coordinating care with other providers.
  2. Mental healthcare is a specialty of geriatric healthcare that’s just as important as physical care.
  3. Geriatricians can provide long-term, individualized care for multiple conditions.
  4. When choosing a geriatrician, make sure they match the needs of your loved one.
  5. There is no right or wrong time to start seeing a geriatrician.

If you’re looking for high-quality, specialized care for your loved one, Lightyear Health may have everything they need all under one roof. From geriatric psychiatry to medical rehabilitation, our team of professionals can improve quality of life for you and your loved one alike.

Click here to learn more.


Is geriatrics a primary care or subspecialty discipline? | NCBI

Primary Care Physicians on the Front Lines of Diagnosing and Providing Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care: Half Say Medical Profession Not Prepared to Meet Expected Increase in Demands. | Alzheimer’s Association

Specialists in Aging: Do You Need a Geriatrician? | Johns Hopkins Medicine

Putting a band-aid over a cut or going to the doctor because of a sprained ankle feels like common sense. Physical injuries can be painful and uncomfortable, so it’s important to get them checked out.


But what about injuries that you can’t see? Mental health conditions like depression or anxiety are just as detrimental as a broken bone, yet they often go undiagnosed. And for senior populations who have difficulty expressing their feelings, it can be even harder to get proper care for your loved ones.


Mental health can lead to abnormal behaviors. If you notice that your family member is lashing out, extra aggressive, or acting in unusual ways, it might be the byproduct of an underlying mental condition.


Mental health has a tendency to decline over time, so making sure your elderly loved one’s are getting the care they need to lead a happy and full life is essential. Let’s talk about the differences between mental and behavioral health as well as some of the best ways to bring them relief.

Mental Health vs. Behavioral Health

Mental health refers to your internal state of well-being, including your thoughts, stresses, and emotions. It has major effects on your quality of life. Conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or PTSD can weaken your mental health.


Behavioral health is a blanket term that includes mental health, but it also takes into consideration the well-being of your body. Behavioral health is the way you present yourself to the outside world. 


One way to think of it is that mental health is internal, whereas behavioral health is external. However, they both have a direct effect on one another. For instance, having OCD can cause you to behave differently, such as frequently washing your hands or doing rituals before you leave the house. On the other hand, lashing out on a friend might make you feel anxious or guilty on the inside.


Either way, both of these are important aspects for the holistic wellbeing of senior populations. Younger individuals may have an easier time expressing their desires, wants, or feelings, making it easier for mental health professionals to come up with a treatment plan. But for seniors, it can be a lot harder to convey emotion, especially if conditions like dementia have diminished their ability to verbalize.


The good news is that specialists in geriatric mental health exist, and they know how to recognize the signs.

Recognizing Symptoms of Common Mental Health Conditions

Long term care facilities devote a lot of time and resources to treatment of physical pain and musculoskeletal setbacks. However, behavioral health is often overlooked. Waltham Clinic’s team of specialists seeks to provide holistic care for your loved one’s overall wellbeing — and that includes mental health care.


At least one in four older adults experience some form of mental disorder. And since mental health can have a direct effect on their behaviors and overall happiness, it’s important to try to recognize the symptoms before it becomes too serious.


Dementia is an umbrella term for memory loss, language deterioration, and loss of critical thinking abilities with age. These often interfere with everyday life. 


Symptoms of dementia include:

  • Problems with short term memory
  • Difficulty preparing meals
  • Trouble remembering appointments
  • Wandering to unknown locations

The symptoms of dementia are progressive, meaning they gradually get worse over time. While there is no known treatment for dementia, behavioral health specialists can help alleviate some of the co-occurring disorders like anxiety and depression to make your loved one as happy as possible.


Anxiety is marked by persistent feelings of worry or fear. Many older adults experience anxiety, yet the condition goes underdiagnosed in senior populations.


There are risk factors for anxiety such as sleep disturbances of stressful life events. However, chronic medical conditions are one of the biggest contributors of anxiety to older individuals. Pain and stress are closely related to one another, so if you can alleviate one, the other might subside as well.


There are some behaviors that may alert you to an anxiety disorder in your older family members. This includes:

  • Avoiding routine activities or social situations
  • Shallow breathing, trembling, or sweating
  • Aggression or irritation
  • Checking and rechecking for safety


Depression is a mood disorder marked by persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or loss of pleasure. It is not a normal part of aging, but many older adults feel depression due to stressful events such as death of friends, moving from work to retirement, or being physically unable to function independently.


Sadness is often not the main symptom for older adults with depression. Instead, they may be abnormally tired, grumpy and irritable, or have trouble sleeping. Additionally, attention problems may be caused by depression, and it might look very similar to dementia.

Mental Health Treatments for Seniors

If a mental health condition is recognized in your loved one, specialists can work to provide a number of therapies to bring them relief. Here are a few of the things they may try to improve your family member’s quality of life.

Pinpoint the Underlying Cause

Diagnosing the condition is the first, and arguably most important, step in the process. The reason is because it’s common for the underlying cause of anxiety or stress to have to do with a medical condition.


For instance, it might become clear that your loved one is experiencing indigestion, heart problems, or a sprained ankle. If these physical conditions can be satisfied, their behavioral health may improve as a byproduct.

Talk Therapy

Aging comes with a lot of stress on its own, and allowing your loved one to speak with a behavioral health counselor might be an effective treatment option. Those who undergo talk therapy alone experience a 64% improvement in their symptoms, on average.


With that said, there are some limitations to talk therapy when it comes to older populations. Verbal impairments, cognitive decline, hearing and vision, and immediate memory can make it hard to engage with seniors in a typical fashion.


The good news is that talk therapy is not the only option.


Geriatric psychiatry is a specialized area of psychiatry that focuses on the behavioral and mental well-being of older adults. Specialists in this area understand how chronic illness and aging can affect mental health, and their care focuses on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment through medication.


Psychiatric medications including antidepressants or antipsychotics can be effective ways to bring relief to your loved one’s mental health condition. In fact, psychiatric drugs were found to be just as effective as general medications to relieve physical ailments.

What to Expect from Behavioral Health and Wellness?

Geriatric mental health specialists are devoted to improving the quality of life of your loved ones. In turn, you can have some relief that they are living the most full and enriching life possible.


During the first screening, the provider will ask your family member a series of detailed questions to assess mental wellness and cognition. They may also conduct a physical exam and request lab work to confirm or rule out a physical condition that might explain their behavior.


They may also ask you, as the caregiver, some questions about their overall behavior. Try to be as precise and detailed as possible. Every bit of information can help them craft the best treatment plan possible.

In Conclusion

Mental health and behavioral health are two important components of a senior’s life. Mental health refers to internal emotional state, whereas behavioral health is more concerned about the outward expression of these internal feelings. For seniors, it can be difficult to diagnose and treat mental health conditions due to a number of barriers.


Key takeaways:

  • Some of the most common mental health conditions in seniors include dementia, anxiety, and depression.
  • Understanding symptoms is important for giving providers more detailed information.
  • Physical conditions are often the underlying cause of many behavioral health problems in seniors.
  • Psychiatric medications are effective treatment options, especially when language impairments prevent talk therapy from being accessible.

Many long term care facilities only focus on physical health, but Lightyear Health seeks to close the gap through patient-focused holistic care. To learn more about our service, click here.



Seniors and Mental Health | World Health Organization

 Anxiety in Older Adults | Mental Health America

The effectiveness of long-term psychoanalytic therapy: a systematic review of empirical studies | NCBI

Is the efficacy of psychopharmacological drugs comparable to the efficacy of general medicine medication? | NCBI

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