Cognitive, behavioral, and developmental changes throughout the human lifespan are a major focus in many fields of Psychology. However clinical psychologists often have limited training on the unique challenges of older adulthood, increasing the importance of a field focused on meeting those challenges – geropsychology.
Geropsychology is a branch of psychology that seeks to address the concerns of older adults. Mental Health Disorders, depression and aging, anxiety, and age-related illnesses all increase the need for older adults to seek psychological care from geropsychologists. Geropsychology encourages older adults to live full lives well into their senior years by providing psychotherapies and interventions to treat a variety of disorders, aging concerns, and challenges.
It is also a field that provides guidance for common changes that take place in these later years, such as retirement and housing relocation issues.
What Makes Geropsychology Important?
Advances in medicine and technology that have increased longevity have also increased the demand for answers on the aging process. Only an estimated 700 geropsychologists are currently practicing, a number that will need to grow exponentially, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The organization estimates that as many as 5,000 geropsychologists will be needed by the year 2020.
The field of Geropsychology remains the leader of all psychology fields in creating specialized interventions for older adults based on empirical, research-based knowledge of the aging process, according to the APA.
Anxiety and Depression in Older Adults
Negative cognitive changes sometimes manifest in older adults for a variety of reasons, including retirement, financial difficulties, transportation issues, housing problems, and declining health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites depression as the most prominent mental disorder that affects older adults. Depression can lead to a decreased interest in hobbies or activities, isolation, and even suicide in the most dire cases. Fortunately, the CDC states that 80% of those with depression can be treated with highly successful interventions. The field of Geropsychology employs psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy to treat depression. For more information, see the article treatments for depression.
Anxiety is common in older adults who also experience symptoms of depression. According to the APA, anxiety disorders affect 11% of older adults in America. Family members may overlook these symptoms because they often coincide with physical illnesses, but experts in geropsychology have the knowledge to assess and treat these disorders. Geropsychology identifies stress factors, from the past or present, that cause anxiety in the lives of older adults.
Geropsychologists often work with older adults suffering from chronic illness. In the U.S., an estimated 85% of older adults experience chronic illness, including arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, hearing loss, cataracts, or stroke, according to the APA.
When a patient is diagnosed with a chronic illness, a medical professional recommends psychotherapy to help the individual adjust to life with the illness, making treatment for the chronic illness a multidisciplinary objective. For instance, patients often develop depression as they face the realities of living with chronic pain or disability, and depression often impedes medical treatment.
Geropsychologists guide older adults through all the issues associated with chronic illness, including socioenvironmental issues and crumbling social networks, to help them adjust to their conditions and comply with treatment.
Older adults who suffer from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia typically exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression as well. Experts estimate that up to 40% of people with Alzheimer’s suffer from major depression, according to the Alzheimer's Association. For more information, see the article Types of Depression. However, dementia presents unique challenges for geropsychologists because Alzheimer's patients are less likely to speak openly about their depression.
The National Institute on Mental Health lists guidelines for diagnosing Alzheimer's patients with depression. In order to be diagnosed with depression, Alzheimer's patients must exhibit two or more of the following in a two week period:
- Social Isolation
- Disruption in appetite
- Disruption in sleep
- Agitation or slowed behavior
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Recurrent thoughts of death
Older Adults and Substance Abuse
Geropsychology places a special focus on older adults struggling with substance abuse. A report from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that the need for substance abuse treatment for older adults will double by 2020, largely because of the aging baby boomer generation.
Older adults with substance abuse problems are likely to have feelings of isolation, letting their substance abuse erode their social networks. Geropsychology research provides guidelines and programs to help older adults who suffer from substance abuse by focusing on rebuilding those social networks.
One successful program was the Gerontology Alcohol Project – a pilot program that treated 48 Florida adults with a mean age of 64. All the patients suffered from single-condition substance abuse, meaning that they did not suffer from any additional mental disorders. The program employed a self-management treatment that focused on skill acquisition, management of high-risk situations, and re-establishment of social networks.
Subjects examined the consequences of their drinking, and concentrated on alcohol education and problem solving. Working with geropsychologists in a cognitive-behavioral framework, these individuals developed a self-treatment plan that required participants to either remain abstinent from alcohol or only drink in moderation. Participants were considered successful if they accomplished their set goals. The project ended with a 74% success rate.
Is Geropsychology Right for Me?
A career in geropsychology requires dedication and a commitment to advancing treatment and care for older adults. A doctorate in either psychology or geropsychology would help prepare individuals for a clinical practice that focused on the older adult population. Previous experience with older adults, in either an internship or volunteer setting, is strongly recommended for students who wish to study geropsychology.