Aging brings physical limitations and cognitive challenges that often make life difficult and trying. Many local and national services and programs now offer health and social assistance, but the sheer number of options, and the process of applying for services, becomes overwhelming.
With so many options available, how is it possible to determine which programs will meet the particular needs of an older adult?
Geriatric counselors assist older adults with choosing from the wide array of social and health services and programs available to them. Geriatric counselors are care managers for older adults, helping to facilitate family support, provide direct care, and coordinate care from professional systems, according to the Geriatric Social Work Initiative (GSWI).
The Geriatric Counselor's Role
The overall goal of a geriatric counselor is to improve the lives of older adults by increasing access to programs aimed at assisting them. Older adults might have issues related to housing, transportation, finances, or social interactions.
For example, a geriatric counselor working with an older adult needing access to transportation would schedule and coordinate grocery delivery services. Additionally, navigating programs like Medicaid or Medicare is confusing and frustrating, but geriatric counselors are experts at understanding the process of obtaining benefits from these programs. They also know how to locate the health services that accept Medicare and Medicaid patients.
To provide services for the older adult, the geriatric counselor must first become very familiar with the adult and the individual’s illnesses, disabilities, or limitations. Counselors take a holistic view of that individual's life, from his or her views on faith, illness, and finances, to housing and transportation issues. A sample survey given by a geriatric counselor might ask a few of the following questions:
- What medications do you take?
- How is your relationship with your family?
- Are you able to get dressed, get in/out of bed, bathe, do housework, and use transportation without any assistance?
- How often do you drink alcohol?
- Describe your home environment. Are the floors slippery? Is there adequate lighting?
- Do you feel connected to, or separated from others?
By obtaining information on the older adult's lifestyle, the geriatric counselor then helps to develop a comprehensive care plan that includes all the possible services the individual requires. These services include home cleaning services, crisis support services, or any of the following:
- Processing insurance claims
- Legal assistance services
- Hospice care coordination
- Prescription refill services
- Money management and bill paying services
Geriatric counselors arrange frequent visits with clients to ensure that their needs are met, identifying any changes that necessitate an individual’s need for new programs or services. After a sudden stroke or fall, the needs of older adults might change, and geriatric counselors must be prepared to set up transportation services or grocery delivery, for example.
As a Liaison
In addition to care management, the geriatric counselor also acts as a liaison between older adults and their physicians. Older adults with dementia might have difficulty explaining their needs and problems to a physician, and geriatric counselors often facilitate communication. The counselor must have extensive knowledge about Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and other age-related illnesses in order to coordinate proper care and gain a thorough understanding of the older adult's needs. By gaining information on these age-related diseases, the counselor acts as an effective facilitator and advocate for the older adult.
Geriatric counselors must pay special attention to changes in physical or mental health. The counselor keeps track of the older adult's nutrition and weight, and any differences in cognitions or behaviors. By coordinating multidisciplinary support for the older adult, the geriatric counselor ensures that everyday functioning remains optimal for the aging individual.
Geriatric Counselor Career Path
Becoming a geriatric counselor requires a background in psychology or social work, but preferably involves a combination of both. The counselor must provide aging advice and understand the psychology of aging, as well as have expert knowledge on the services and programs available to older adults. Internships or volunteer opportunities at hospitals, assisted living communities, or senior community centers help prepare future geriatric counselors.
Geriatric counselors usually have master's degrees in either social work or psychology. A passion for advancing the needs and goals of older adults helps prepare you for work in this field. For more information on becoming a geriatric counselor, request information from schools offering degrees in gerontology.
Who cares for the caregivers? Caring for a loved one experiencing dementia or other age-related problems is a selfless and loving measure, but it also brings challenges to the caregiver. Sometimes known as “the second patient” by geriatric counselors, caregivers experience difficulty watching loved ones struggle with growing older, and need help from counselors to juggle increased responsibilities.
Geriatric counselors are not only aware of the needs of older adults, but also ensure that caregivers know how to effectively manage stress, offering a number of suggestions for stress management.
One option is to set up a shift schedule for caregiving. Older adults with Alzheimer's or other debilitating diseases sometimes need constant attention, which proves too much for one caregiver. By splitting duties with another person, the caregiver relieves stress and is able to concentrate on his or her own health as well.
In many situations, simply voicing concerns and problems to geriatric counselors helps reduce caregivers’ stress. Talking with a geriatric counselor also gives caregivers needed affirmation for their extraordinary efforts.
If stress levels are not addressed, however, caregivers can experience depression and caregiver burnout. The Family Caregiver Alliance has estimated that nearly 20% of family caregivers suffer from some form of depression.
In particular, caring for Alzheimer's patients can be especially trying, and often leads to depression. Signs of caregiver depression include a decreased interest in work, withdrawal from social contacts, changes in eating habits, and a sense of ongoing fatigue. Geriatric counselors are able to connect caregivers suffering with depression with mental health practitioners who specialize in depression.
A high level of unmanageable stress also causes burnout, or loss of work ethic. During burnout, the caregiver feels defeated, mentally and physically exhausted, and unwilling to continue caring for the older adult. Geriatric counselors have a number of options they suggest to caregivers suffering from burnout.
At times, the best solution for burnout is to simply take a break. A short vacation revitalizes energy and allows the caregiver to focus on personal goals or issues to reduce stress levels. The geriatric counselor also discusses stress management techniques with the caregiver, such as setting limits on time spent with older adults, providing the caregiver time to concentrate on his or her own life. Support groups, such as the National Family Caregivers Association, offer outlets for frustration and stress, and provide opportunities for caregivers to meet other caregivers dealing with similar problems.