What does a Geriatric Physician do?

C. Mitchell

A geriatric physician provides medical care, counseling, and treatment to elderly and aging adults. Also called “geriatricians,” geriatric physicians typically maintain practices or offices designed exclusively for the unique needs of older people. Although a geriatric physician is first and foremost a doctor, a lot of the duties of the job exceed basic medical care. Doctors who specialize in geriatrics often help elderly patients adjust to end-of-life issues, and may focus more on patient comfort than on definitive cures. A geriatric doctor will also frequently involve family members and other health professionals into an individual patient’s care.

Geriatric physicians work with older patients.
Geriatric physicians work with older patients.

One of the most important tasks of a geriatric physician is understanding how aging affects the body’s health. Aged and elderly people have some of the most challenging health concerns of any demographic. As bodies grow old and frail, traditional remedies for common ailments are less effective or stop working altogether. The tendency for multiple things to go wrong simultaneously also increases, and the body’s natural defenses diminish. Geriatric medicine is devoted to adapting traditional treatments for patients approaching the ends of their lives.

Geriatric physicians need emphathy and listening skills when interacting with patients and their caregivers.
Geriatric physicians need emphathy and listening skills when interacting with patients and their caregivers.

Much of what a geriatric physician does is pain management. He or she will meet with a patient, assess the patient’s health and health issues, and look for reasonable ways of easing the patient’s suffering, if any. While the focus with many younger patients is healing or restoration to normal health, with the elderly, comfort is often more important.

Of course, minor ailments can often be cured, even in the aged. It is the more serious conditions — particularly cancers and organ failure — that give geriatric doctors more pause. Aggressive treatments that might have been appropriate in youth may no longer be treatments that an elderly patient will respond favorably to. As the body ages, it often has a harder and harder time bouncing back.

Mental health management is another major task of the geriatric physician. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia have profound effects on the quality of life and autonomy of many elderly individuals. Mental degradation often deeply affects close family members, as well. Geriatric physicians must usually be well-versed in treating and mitigating the negative aspects of mental degeneration, and often must spend a lot of time providing information to concerned family members. Many geriatricians also keep a roster of mental health and family counselors on hand for referrals.

Aside from these basics, the day-to-day tasks and undertakings of any given geriatric physician varies depending on the contours of the doctor’s practice. Some geriatric physicians work in practices devoted to serving the needs of the elderly in the nearby community. Others work as specialists in general or family practices offices, or are on staff at hospitals or hospice care centers. No matter where they work, however, all geriatric physicians work to treat, heal, and comfort the aging body.

Most of the time, a geriatric physician is a certified geriatric specialist. Many countries, including the United States and Canada, require doctors to receive special training and certification credentials before holding themselves out as anything other than general practitioners. In order to become a geriatric physician, one must usually specialize in geriatrics. This often requires completion of a devoted geriatric rotation after medical school, and subsequent passage of a geriatric medicine exam. Most of the time, certification credentials must be renewed every couple of years, either by re-testing or by attending seminars and conferences for continuing education credits.

Geriatric physicians work to keep patients as active as possible.
Geriatric physicians work to keep patients as active as possible.

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