Why it’s smart to see a geriatrician 

Once we hit our 60s, 70s and beyond, our medical needs are often quite different from what they were when we were in middle age or early adulthood. Wouldn’t it be smart to use medical professionals who specialize in care for older adults? The medical world appears to think so based on the increasing number of medical professionals who are getting trained in geriatric medicine. What you need to know…

The terminology is tricky. There are essentially two types of health-care providers for older adults. Geriatricians are primary care doctors who hold MD or DO degrees and most often have become board-certified in internal medicine or family medicine before undergoing further training for a subspecialty in geriatrics. Geriatricians look at all the medical issues of an older person, including the appropriateness of a given procedure or a particular medication regimen. They are able to weigh the risk versus benefit for a particular course of treatment (such as chemotherapy for cancer or intensive antibiotic therapy for an aggressive infection). Geriatricians most often work with other specialists, such as cardiologists and oncologists, to oversee an older adult’s care.

Gerontologists aren’t physicians but have special training in how to deal with a range of health-related issues in the elderly. Examples of these professionals include geriatric social workers (who work closely with patients and families to help them identify a nursing home or assisted-living facility, for example)…and personal care aides (who provide assistance in a person’s home or facility, such as help with bathing). 

Each of these professionals, depending on the state in which they work, must be licensed by the state or meet specific certification requirements. Insider tip: Always ask what training the professional has undergone and if he/she is certified or licensed before choosing a geriatrician or gerontologist. 

Find the right provider. To find health-care professionals who specialize in geriatrics, check the website of the American Geriatrics Society, AmericanGeriatrics.org/public. Your state’s department of health also can help you find licensed or certified providers and facilities. If the services are deemed medically necessary, insurance usually will pay all or part of the fees.

Your current doctor may be just fine. If you’re not yet 65 and are in relatively good health, you may not need a geriatrician. This is particularly true if your primary care doctor sees a lot of older patients and is affiliated with a hospital that has a geriatrics department. But if you, your spouse or an elderly parent has multiple medical needs (including a chronic health problem, such as heart disease, along with balance issues)…has trouble keeping on top of things physically or mentally…or simply wants someone who oversees an individual’s entire health needs, switching to a geriatrician and using the services of gerontologists may be the best way to maintain independence and continue to enjoy life.