How to Become a Geriatric Psychologist

Overview

Geriatrics is the branch of healthcare that deals with patients over 60 years of age, and geriatric psychology, or geropsychology, is concerned with the emotional concerns of older patients. A geriatric psychologist might work with seniors who have lost loved ones, who must adjust to retirement, or who are facing Alzheimer’s or other mental or physical problems due to advancing age.

A geropsychologist with training in cognition and memory might train seniors to improve their memories. He or she might be consulted by the children or grandchildren of elderly people for advice on how to take care of elderly relatives. Work settings might include private clinics, county mental health offices, senior centers, or senior care facilities.

What Does a Geriatric Psychologist Do?

A geriatric psychologist works with seniors, who have lost a loved one to death, those who are having trouble adjusting to retirement, and those, who have chronic medical (psychological or physical) conditions like: depression, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, etc. In addition, geriatric psychologists, who have advanced training and experience in cognitive processes (i.e. memory retention), may use their skills to help older individuals strengthen and/or improve their mental processes (i.e. memory).

Moreover, these mental health professionals advise adult children, and grandchildren on how to properly care for their aging love one. Geriatric psychologists are also specifically trained to accurately assess, diagnose, and treat older individuals, suffering from a variety of psychological issues. They also consult with the older individual’s medical assistant, home health nurse, and physician, in an effort to make sure all of the psychological issues and mental illnesses are properly diagnosed, monitored, and treated.

Related: How to Become a Geriatric Social Worker

It is important to note that geriatric psychology is a highly challenging and specialized branch of psychology that works exclusively with seniors (people over the age of 60). Geriatric psychologists also treat older individuals, who are experiencing age-related concerns, such as: bereavement (death and dying, chronic health conditions, and social isolation/abandonment/empty nest). These psychologists are important for society because they address the psychological issues that arise as people age. They also tend to take a holistic approach to treatment.

In other words, geriatric psychologists acknowledge the connection between physical health concerns (i.e. dementia, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, memory loss, etc.) and psychological distress (i.e. depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc.). Memory loss is the primary age-related condition that geriatric psychologists treat. In this case, geriatric psychologists help seniors retain as much of their short-term and long-term memories, as possible. They also teach older individuals how to strengthen and enhance their memory functions.

In addition, these medical professionals help older individuals cope with memory loss, and families cope with the effects of advanced-stage Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Furthermore, geriatric psychologists help seniors cope with the loss of independence and mobility, so that they can comfortably accept assistance from others. The thing that is the hardest for aging people is the reliance on others for help performing daily tasks. More specifically, many older individuals experience depression because of their deteriorating physical and mental conditions. The ultimate goal of geriatric psychologists is to improve the functioning and emotional states of older individuals.

Why Do We Need Geriatric Psychologists?

Geriatric psychology is a highly specialized field of work in which psychologists work exclusively with aging clients. Psychologists working with this segment of the population assist their clients in dealing with various mental and physical health concerns related to aging, including death and dying, social isolation, and illness.

The increasing need for geriatric psychologists is tied closely to the fact that the population is becoming older overall. This is due to several factors, including improved healthcare that has led to increasingly long lifespans, and the fact that the Baby Boom generation is aging and driving up the number of older Americans.

Geriatric psychologists are necessary for aging individuals because of the myriad of health needs that present themselves as we age. Loss of memory function is a primary area of concern. Geriatric psychologists work with individuals to help retain as much of their memory function as possible and help clients deal with the frustrations associated with losing their memory. Much work is also done to help families cope with the devastation of dementia and Alzheimer’s as well.

Physical ailments in old age further require the services of geriatric psychologists. Loss of mobility, reliance on others to perform tasks of daily living, and lack of independence can be psychologically devastating for aging adults. Depression is high amongst the elderly and is often related to their deteriorating physical state. Geriatric psychologists provide aging adults with programs and services that help reduce depressive symptoms and improve their ability to function at their highest possible level.

What are the Education Requirements to Become a Geriatric Psychologist?

To become a geriatric psychologist a high school graduate first needs to matriculate at a four year university. A baccalaureate degree is the first educational requirement toward becoming any kind of psychologist. University programs vary somewhat, but most require the student to complete about 120 semester hours of study, including around 30 to 45 in psychology courses. General education makes up the rest, and usually includes English, history, political science, humanities, science, math, and a foreign language.

Psychology classes typically begin with an introduction to general psychology in the freshman year and progress to classes in cognition, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, perception, social psychology, physiological psychology, and other subjects dealing with the human mind and behavior. Some undergraduate courses include geriatric information, such as Chapman University’s (Orange, CA)  junior level course in life-span development.

Post-Graduation

After undergraduate school the next step is graduate school for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD). Some universities have special programs for aspiring geriatric psychologists. Yeshiva University in New York includes the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. The Ferkauf Older Adult Program prepares future psychologists with a PsyD in helping the elderly. The University of Alabama offers a course of study leading to a PhD in clinical psychology with a concentration in geropsychology.

Graduate schools that do not offer a formal concentration in geriatric psychology can still afford the student the opportunity to study the discipline if faculty members with knowledge and interest in geropsychology are available. Prospective doctoral students should speak with faculty members of the schools in which they are interested to learn what opportunities are available.

Some PhD and PsyD programs require coursework. Clinical experience is also arranged for those planning upon a career in clinical geriatric counseling. Students are also required to plan and carry out research in the field to add to the body of knowledge in geropsychology. A written dissertation is required along with a formal oral presentation to a committee of faculty members. The dissertation should be of a quality acceptable for publication in a psychology journal.

What are the Requirements for Licensing?

Once a newly-minted psychologist has completed his or her formal studies, he or she will need to obtain permission to practice from the State Board of Psychology. Each state, territory, and province has its own rules and regulations for obtaining and maintaining a license, but most require passing a test called the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP).

On the other hand, some states have other requirements. New Hampshire, for example creates its own tests that candidates may take twice a year. Georgia’s State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and Oregon’s Board of Psychologist Examiners require not only the EPPP but their own tests of state jurisprudence. Most states require supervised clinical experience as well, the amount and quality determined by individual state boards. Licensed psychologists are required to fulfill state requirements in continuing education in order to renew their licenses, usually every two years. Prospective geropsychologists are advised to check with their states’ own boards for information on how to obtain and maintain a license to practice.

Where Does a Geriatric Psychologist Work?

Geriatric psychologists typically work in the following work settings:

  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Assisting living communities
  • Hospitals and nursing homes for elderly patients
  • Private and government research centers
  • Private practice
  • Academic institutes
  • Mental health centers

What are the Disadvantages of Being a Geriatric Psychologist?

Working Against the Inevitable

Although the work of geriatric psychologists is invaluable, they are locked in a constant battle against time itself. Death is an unavoidable part of all of our lives. No matter how well a geriatric psychologist does his or her job, time will deteriorate the minds of their patients and cause new problems to surface. Although not true in all cases, other fields of psychology often attempt to investigate or solve single or groups of issues. With this in mind, psychologists in these fields can have small victories in, for instance, guiding a suicidal patient past a moment of crisis. Geriatric psychologists are rarely afforded this luxury and forced to fight a losing battle.

Working with a Very Small Subset of the Population

The nature of geriatric psychology makes sure that the professionals working in this field of psychology often operate within a small subset of the population. That’s not to say that geriatric psychology can’t offer variety – after all, the mental problems faced by the elderly are no simple matter – but that, unlike some other fields of psychology, geriatric psychologists are confined to working with the aging population.

Feeling Unappreciated

One of the best parts about working as a psychologist is the sense of satisfaction one gets from knowing their work truly matters. Even so, hearing feelings of gratitude from others can be a great motivator. Unfortunately, many patients that geriatric psychologists work with have issues with memory or have impaired functions in some other areas. Consequently, there are times when geriatric psychologists will work with patients that aren’t highly aware that they’re being helped. In addition, some elderly people have become isolated from their family, meaning that geriatric psychologists rarely get to see the relief their work gives others reflected back at them from the loved ones of their patients.

What is the Salary of a Geriatric Psychologist?

As of July 2015, Payscale.com lists the average salary for a psychologist as $69,455. Amounts vary greatly with settings. A geriatric psychologist in a busy private practice could be expected to earn more than one in a county mental health clinic. Salaries in general tend to be higher in large metropolitan areas and in areas of high standards of living than in rural or poorer areas.

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