Geriatric psychology or geropsychology is a specialty within clinical psychology dealing with issues related to older adults. A geropsychologist is a clinical psychologist that works with individuals or in group settings such as nursing homes to provide counseling and services related to the later years of life. Such issues may include bereavement, loss of independence, depression, anxiety and health-related issues. A geropsychologist may also diagnose and assess cognitive effects of aging including dementia.
As a clinical geropsychologist, I have developed a proficiency in professional psychology concerned with helping older persons and their families maintain well-being, overcome problems, and achieve maximum potential during later life. The issues and challenges listed below are but a few of the many topics of concern that I often treat.
Anxiety and Depression in Older Adults
There are many challenges that people face in later life including retirement, financial difficulties, transportation issues, housing problems, and declining health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites depression as the most prominent mental disorder that affects older adults. Depression can lead to a decreased interest in hobbies or activities, isolation, and even suicide in the most dire cases. Fortunately, the CDC states that 80% of those with depression can be treated with highly successful interventions.
Anxiety is common in older adults who also experience symptoms of depression. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety disorders affect 11% of older adults in America. Family members may overlook these symptoms because they often coincide with physical illnesses, but experts in geropsychology have the knowledge to assess and treat these disorders.
In the U.S., an estimated 85% of older adults experience chronic illness, including arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, hearing loss, cataracts, or stroke (American Psychological Association).
The realities of living with chronic pain or disability can result in symptoms of depression which often impedes medical treatment. When someone is diagnosed with a chronic illness, psychotherapy can be helpful with adjusting to life with the illness. Geropsychologists guide older adults through all the issues associated with chronic illness, to help them adjust to their conditions and associated life challenges.
Death and Dying
Death and dying can be stressful for dying people, their loved ones and caregivers. Psychologists can help. They can assess mood, mental functioning and pain; treat depression, anxiety and other mental health problems; provide end-of-life counseling to the dying and their families; and advocate for good medical care. Not only is preparing for the end of life challenging and rewarding, research shows that it can also lower stress and improve quality of life for both patients and families. The process of making end-of-life plans goes more smoothly if patients and families talk openly and honestly and view this natural phase as a time for personal growth. End-of-life decisions often include: making care-related goals, choosing a type of palliative or hospice care, picking where the final days will be spent, and deciding which treatments will be given. Taking the time and effort to discuss these important topics makes the patient’s requests unmistakable to families and health care providers and helps create a secure and calm decision-making environment.
Neurological Illnesses, Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia, etc.
Alzheimer's disease typically causes loss of memory and intellectual ability, but it can also include a number of behavioral and psychological symptoms. For that reason, doctors are placing an ever-greater emphasis on psychological therapy as a key part of a person's early Alzheimer's treatment.
Unlike the cognitive decline caused by Alzheimer's, which is both chronic and progressive, the psychological problems that spring from the disease tend to fluctuate, coming and going depending on the person's mental and emotional state. Psychotherapy following initial diagnosis can help someone deal with feelings of anxiety or anger caused by the disorder, as well as behavioral problems like delusions that can accompany Alzheimer's. Talking to a therapist can also be helpful as someone struggles to come to terms with, and accept, their (or their loved one's) new diagnosis. As Alzheimer's progresses, psychotherapy may become more challenging for the patient as cognitive decline occurs and the ability to express feelings is lost. Yet, family and caregivers can continue to benefit from working with a mental health professional as the disease progresses.
Alzheimer’s and dementia has a profound impact on family and loved ones as well. As the disease progresses, frustration and periods of distress are common and likely. Caregivers are faced with challenges from the patient, such as periods of forgetfulness, repeating oneself, periods of agitation, making poor decisions, and sometimes aggressive and/or violent behaviors. It is often difficult to know how to best react and engage someone who is exhibiting such changes. A clinical psychologist can help develop a plan of how to react and address such changes and behaviors.
Some of the many services that I can provide include psychological assessment, education about stress reduction techniques, behavior planning, and assistance with coping with life stressors.
It is a very emotionally trying time when it comes to having a loved one with this disease. If you're caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease, seriously consider psychological care for you and/or your loved one. It can play a key part in the treatment process, both for you and the patient alike.