The term ‘geriatric psychiatrist’ may not be as ubiquitous as a regular psychiatrist, but these specially-trained experts in elder mental health have a vital role to play in the coming decades, as America’s population ages.
Helen Kales, M.D., professor of psychiatry and Director of the Section of Geriatric Psychiatry at the University of Michigan says the ultimate goal of a geriatric psychiatrist is to “maximize quality of life and functionality of the older patient.”
Here are a few more things that you may not (but probably should) know about geriatric psychiatrists:
They are rare: Kales estimates that there are only about 1,600 geriatric psychiatrists actively practicing in the United States. To put this figure in perspective, there are around 16.5 regular psychiatrists but less than one geriatric psychiatrist for every 100,000 Americans.
They can prescribe medications: All geriatric psychiatrists undergo four years of medical school after they receive an undergraduate degree. As doctors, they can (and often do) prescribe medication to help an elder cope with various mental conditions.
But they don‘t always turn to prescriptions first: While there are certain cases in which medications can help aging adults with mental conditions such as depression and certain dementias, drugs are often not the go-to remedy. “The limitations of antipsychotics is a topic that is very important to discussÖRisk/benefit is very important. At times, the benefit may outweigh the risks. But, that said, they are used too much and too many times in people for whom the risk outweighs the benefit,” says Kales.
They can help diagnose dementia: While they cannot offer a definitive diagnosis based solely on a mental evaluation, geriatric psychiatrists can help identify symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and can be a good place to start if a loved one is experiencing concerning cognitive impairment.
They can act as liaisons between doctors, patients and caregivers: Part of the challenge of managing an older adult’s medical care is juggling multiple doctors who specialize in different diseases. For example, a cardiologist may not fully understand the effect of your mother’s depression has on her willingness to stick to her cholesterol medication regimen. A geriatric psychiatrist can help explain the situation, and help devise a plan that encourages your mother to take her prescriptions as recommended.
They understand the importance of family caregivers: “Caregivers offer a window to the older patient’s past personality, their likes and dislikes,” says Kales.
They can help caregivers cope: One of the most important functions of a geriatric psychiatrist is to assist those who are taking care of an elderly loved one deal with the practical and emotional challenges they face as family caregivers.
To learn more about geriatric psychiatrists, check out Dr. Kales’ article “Geriatric Psychiatrists: How Can We Help You?”
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