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Is it Time for a Geriatrician or a Gerontologist?

What is the difference between a Geriatrician and a Gerontologist, and why now might be the right time to find out?

First, let’s distinguish between these two. A geriatrician is a medical specialist in the care of older adults. The bodies of older adults are different and therefore doctors with specialized training for a year or two in treating older patients are important resources. Unfortunately, there are only approximately 7,000 primary care doctors who have this additional training as of 2018 and can be called geriatricians.

Gerontologists are people who study aging. They hold advanced degrees in the study of the physical, psychological and social aspects of aging. Gerontologists perform a support function in educating and understanding aging, while geriatricians deal with the care of these older adults. Gerontologists usually hold a masters degree in gerontology in addition to their professional degrees and usually work in a setting that services older adults or an academic environment where research takes place. Geriatricians are doctors.
Many families seek geriatricians at a certain point in the aging process of a senior. There is no right age to start seeing a geriatrician. However, specific concerns about multiple medical conditions, increasing frailty, the advent of dementia and other diseases related to aging, and managing multiple medications frequently prompt families to identify a geriatrician.

Geriatricians are helpful because they are trained to see the big picture and to give the senior patient a lot of time as they focus on wellness and preventive health as well as managing medical conditions. They can dig deeper to find out if a problem is caused by old age or another cause. Lifestyle, community, family and coordination of care are of interest to them.

Frequently, geriatricians work as part of a team in a hospital or subacute setting. A patient may return to his primary physician after seeing a geriatrician and share the recommendations. A geriatrician can also become the primary care physician. If the senior and his family are happy with the doctor he currently sees and he has experience with their health conditions, there may be no need to switch to a geriatrician.

How does one find a local geriatrician? Using the American Geriatrics Society’s geriatrician finder is one choice. Another is contacting a nearby teaching hospital to see if they have geriatricians. However, they are hard to find because they are too few of them. Talking to people in local senior organizations can be useful to find referrals.
Make sure a geriatrician has received special training and/or certificates. Check to see if he is affiliated with an academic medical center. Learn if there are after hours resources, in-home care, and emergency coverage as well as programming for health maintenance. Consider the preferred communication by the geriatrician and whether it works for the family members. It is very important that the patient and the geriatrician have the same health goals.

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About the Author

Picture of Faigie Horowitz

Faigie Horowitz

Faigie Horowitz, MS serves as director of communication at Caring Professionals. She advocates for the senior population on the state level and writes about senior and caregiver issues. She is a columnist for several periodicals. She has spent decades in nonprofit management and serves as a lay leader and founder of several community organizations.

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