Geriatric psychiatrists can greatly improve quality of life for patients who have mental illnesses and for their families. Geriatric psychiatrists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues that occur more commonly in older patients, such as dementia, depression, anxiety, late life addiction disorders and schizophrenia.
Geriatric psychiatrists are trained to help patients with these concerns and with mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and alcohol/substance abuse, which can happen at any age. The geriatric psychiatrist uses knowledge of biological, psychological, and social factors in working with patients. Because older patients often face physical as well as mental health issues, geriatric psychiatrists strive to treat the patient as a “whole” person. They take into consideration a patient’s overall health and emotional state, as well as available social supports.
Older patients also may be dealing with multiple problems such as:
- Grief over the loss of a spouse or lifelong friends
- Feelings of isolation or lack of purpose
- Stress over financial issues
- Fears of illness or death
- Emotional problems related to health concerns (for example, coping with pain or a cancer diagnosis)
- Problems coping with changes around them
The geriatric psychiatrist starts by taking a complete history of the patient’s health, family supports living situation and general mental status. Tests may be conducted to aid in diagnosis. In many cases, they consult with the patient’s family members to obtain information about the patient’s situation and to ensure that the patient understands and is able to follow the treatment plan. The geriatric psychiatrist may also recommend resources to help the family, if they need assistance to support the patient.
Many patients who see a geriatric psychiatrist are also seeing other health care providers. The geriatric psychiatrist often consults with these other providers to determine how other health issues or medications may be affecting the patient’s mental status.
A geriatric psychiatrist can choose from a number of career options, including clinical practice, researcher, academic or clinician educator.
Geriatric psychiatrists work in private and group practices, as well as long-term care facilities, assisted living centers, veteran’s hospitals and academic institutions. As with other physicians, geriatric psychiatrists working in inpatient facilities may have to be on call nights and weekends.
Salary Range and Outlook
The number of people over age 65 is expected to double in the next 20 years, so demand for geriatric psychiatrists will no doubt increase.
Geriatric psychiatrists earn an average salary of $155,000 per year. Compensation varies greatly depending on the size of the doctor’s practice, the practice setting and the focus of the doctor’s work
Geriatric psychiatrists first train to become allopathic physicians or osteopathic physicians. Following medical school (which lasts four years), the doctor must complete a residency (which is another four years) in general psychiatry and a one-year fellowship in geriatric psychiatry. Some obtain additional fellowship training in research or educational scholarship.
To become board-certified in geriatric psychiatry, the doctor must pass two examinations, first to become board-certified in psychiatry and then to be certified in the subspecialty of geriatric psychiatry. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology administers both exams. Certification is not required to practice, but it is a demonstration of the doctor’s specialized knowledge and skills, and may be required by certain employers. Recent changes in Medicare regulations allow identification of patient care provided by geriatric psychiatry subspecialists.