What Is Geriatric Psychiatry?

Mature woman visiting a senior counselor

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Geriatric psychiatry is a specialty focused on preventing, evaluating, diagnosing, and treating emotional and mental disorders in adults who are 65 years of age and older.

Aging is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier. With old age comes normal biological and psychological changes, as well as the development of certain health and mental health conditions like chronic illnesses, physical disabilities, psychiatric syndromes, and comorbid diseases. 

As Americans continue to live longer lives, the demand for geriatric psychiatry is going to rise. Currently, the average lifespan for an American is 78.8 years and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2030, one-fifth of the U.S. population will be considered elderly (aged 65 and older).

Below, we give an overview of geriatric psychiatry, what it takes to become a geriatric psychiatrist, and how to find one in your area.

A Brief History of Geriatric Psychiatry

Geriatric psychiatry is also referred to as psychogeriatrics, or psychiatry of old age. The first institution to take an interest in geriatrics was the Veterans Administration, as aging veterans faced a number of different mental health conditions.

While psychiatrists have been caring for older adults for decades, the specialty is fairly new. In 1976, the first Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center (GRECC) opened, followed by the first professorship of geriatrics was created at Cornell University in 1977.

In 1978, the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP) was founded, but not until 1991 were the first geriatric psychiatry exams administered. They require a mandatory recertification every ten years.

The field has grown significantly over the last 45 years and now there are a number of different geriatric psychiatry fellowship programs throughout the country which aim to address the mental health of older Americans. 

A Rising Need for Geriatic Psychiatrists 

Even though there is a growing need for geriatric psychiatrists, it’s not a commonly sought-after career.

According to a 2018 University of Michigan study, there are less than 2,000 geriatric psychiatrists, which means there are only 2.6 geriatric psychiatrists per 100,000 adults aged 65 and older. In some states, there are no practicing geriatric psychiatrists.

Becoming a Geriatric Psychiatrist

To become a geriatric psychiatrist, the qualifications are significant. This may be a part of the reason why there are so few of them. To become a geriatric psychiatrist, you must earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) degree and complete a specialty training of at least one year beyond the four years of adult psychiatry training.

You must also pass the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) general psychiatry certification exam. Qualifications from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in Geriatric Psychiatry are also available.

Because geriatric psychiatrists receive extensive specialty training, they are capable of addressing many late-life psychiatric syndromes and mental health conditions that affect older adults. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dementia
  • Delirium
  • Mood disorders
  • Psychoses
  • Alcohol and substance abuse 
  • Personality disorders 
  • Sleep disturbances

Thanks to scientific research, we now know that advanced age puts you at a higher risk for certain mental health conditions, the most common of which are delirium, dementia, and depression.

Increasing age is also the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a neurologic disorder which affects more than six million Americans.

Geriatric psychiatrists play an important role in preventing, intervening, and treating late-life conditions. They are also at the forefront of education, research, and clinical care delivery for age-related neuro-psychiatric syndromes. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough geriatric psychiatrists in this country to meet the ongoing needs of our aging populations. 

To address this problem, more strategies need to be developed to encourage or incentivize people to join this growing field. Some recommendations include adding this subspecialty training to undergraduate and graduate medical education, as well as creating shorter alternative pathways such as mini-fellowships. 

How to Find a Geriatric Psychiatrist

To support the overall health and well-being of older adults, it’s important to address mental health just as you would physical health. You’ll want to surround your aging loved ones with a dedicated social support team. This can include family members, caregivers, and mental health professionals. 

Depending on where you live, you may or may not have easy access to a geriatric psychiatrist, but you can find providers that offer virtual services. Use the American Psychiatry Association database to search for the subspecialty of geriatric psychiatry and see if there’s one practicing in your state.

Geriatric psychiatrists practice in many different healthcare settings, including veteran care centers, private practices, in-patient settings, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other long-term care facilities. 

A Word From Verywell

No one, regardless of age, should have to deal with mental health issues on their own. If you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss, confusion, hallucinations, loss of interest in activities or social interactions, sleep disturbances, or any other number of mood, mental, or psychological symptoms, then it’s important to seek professional care.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing instructor, and advocate for mental health, women's issues, and more.