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Psychiatry Series: What is a Geriatric Psychiatrist?

Aging is an inevitable part of life. The natural aging process is accompanied by both physical and mental changes. While a physician may prescribe certain medications to combat symptoms associated with physical changes, they are often ill-equipped to treat symptoms from the mental changes. That’s where a geriatric psychiatrist would come in. 

Geriatric psychiatrist talking with a female patient

Geriatric psychiatrists are psychiatrists that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental conditions affecting older adults over the age of 65. The specialized field of geriatric psychiatry is also commonly referred to as geropsychiatry, psychogeriatrics, or psychiatry of old age. Geriatric psychiatrists can provide care to their patients in a variety of settings, such as private practice, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, in-patient centers, and veteran care centers.

Like non-specialized psychiatrists, geriatric psychiatrists hold either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) degree. Geriatric psychiatrists undergo 4 years of general psychiatry residency and an additional 1 year of specialty training in geriatric psychiatry. During this specialty training and residency, geriatric psychiatrists are educated on areas surrounding aging and mental health including patient care, medical knowledge, communication skills, practice-based learning, professionalism, and system-based practices. They must then pass the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) general psychiatry certification exam. An additional exam to earn certification as a geriatric psychiatrist can also be completed, but is not required. 

Since geriatric psychiatrists have such an extensive knowledge about aging and mental health, they are able to diagnose and treat a variety of geriatric psychiatric disorders and symptoms including: 

  • Difficulty coping with the changes that accompany aging
  • Stress
  • Anxiety 
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Death and bereavement
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Family history of dementia
  • Schizophrenia 
  • Chronic pain
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Emotional problems associated with medical disorders (health disease, diabetes, stroke)

When it comes to treating geriatric patients, geriatric psychiatrists have a similar methodology as general psychiatrists. They will start by interviewing the patient about their concerns, current medications, and the presence of coexisting medical illnesses. Additionally, geriatric psychiatrists will also coordinate with the family members responsible in providing care for the geriatric patient. They will likely interview family members to obtain more information about the patient’s mental health. 

In some cases, the cognitive skills of the patient may be evaluated to determine the presence of possible cognitive disorders. The Folstein Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) is the most commonly used standardized test for diagnosing cognitive disorders. This test takes about 5-10 minutes. It tests the patient’s ability to register and recall information, pay attention, calculate, use language, follow basic commands, and orient themselves. 

A treatment plan will then be developed based on the patient’s concerns, current medications, medical conditions, family issues, social concerns, and environmental factors. Geriatric psychiatrists may also coordinate with other medical professionals to monitor and improve their patient’s mental health. This treatment plan is also shared with family members and/or caregivers to ensure that the patient sticks to the proposed treatment plan. 

Senior citizens performing art therapy through painting

For most geriatric psychiatric patients, treatment usually consists of psychotherapy and/or psychopharmacology. Often times, patients who do a combination of both have the best results. Psychotherapy, more commonly known as talk therapy, uses drama therapy and art therapy as methods to improve symptoms. For more information on the benefits of drama therapy, see the North American Drama Therapy Association’s “Drama Therapy for a Geriatric Population”. Psychopharmacology is more commonly known as medical management. Medications for geriatric patients must be carefully prescribed and managed to alleviate problematic symptoms while avoiding detrimental side effects. 

Although physical and mental changes are a natural part of aging, these changes can be made easier by properly caring for oneself. Just as one would seek help from a physician for physical symptoms, it is also important to seek help from a licensed psychiatrist for mental symptoms. With the help of a geriatric psychiatrist, it becomes much easier to deal with aging and enjoy the golden years. 

Dr. Miller is trained in Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She is also trained in Anesthesia and Pain Management. Because of her broad experience, Dr. Miller is uniquely qualified to treat psychological trauma, depression and anxiety that can occur as a result of injury or disability.  For more information, schedule a consultation at NJ Family Psychiatry & Therapy.

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Helene A. Miller / And Other Providers
Family Psychiatry and Therapy brings compassion, understanding, and skilled care to patients throughout New Jersey. Our team of mental health professionals focuses on providing a positive and uplifting experience that aids our patients in facing life’s toughest challenges.