Dr. Peter A. Lichtenberg is a clinical psychologist specializing in the field of gerontology who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washington University St. Louis and a master’s degree and doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Purdue University.
He completed his post-doctoral training at the University of Virginia before beginning his career as an assistant professor in the behavorial medicine department at the University of Virginia Medical School. He also worked as the Director of Geriatric Psychology at a hospital in Virginia and as the training director at a rehabilitation institute in Michigan.
Now Lichtenberg is a professor of psychology at Wayne State University as well as the Director of both the Institute of Gerontology and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute. He is also the Founding Director of the Wayne State University Lifespan Alliance. Lichtenberg is also the author of six books and authored or co-authored more than 130 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Can you describe the field of psychology you are in?
I would say it is a cross between geriatric neuropsychology and medical rehabilitation with older adults. A lot of what I do now – research and clinical work – is with people with progressive dementia, physical frailty issues and the mental and cognitive problems associated with it.
What does your job entail?
The career really changes. I started as a clinician and researcher in geriatric mental health before I got into medical rehab with older adults. Halfway through my career, I got to Wayne State and did a lot of administrative duties and research. Now, most of my day is spent between administration, mentoring students and conducting my own research and fundraising for institution.
What challenges should someone looking to enter the field expect?
There is a highly political element to this line of work because a lot of it is based on Medicare funding. People in this field should be willing advocates for their practice and for the American Psychological Association.
They have to be involved because the debates around Medicare funding are ongoing. People in this field have to have an advocacy arm, often they have it tied into their practice. A lot of people in this field have stepped up and are informing Congress and their state legislatures about psychology and aging and their importance in today’s society.
What are your favorite things about being a Gerontologist?
I have always been best at working with patients, doing evaluations, and helping them. But I also love building programs that involve older adults. The Lifespan Alliance hosts conferences on health and aging that dispel myths about aging. We encourage older adults to get involved. About 2,500 older adults come to our program each year.
Another thing we did is document how woefully prepared the workforce was and we stepped up to help educate. Last year, we had 3,500 people in our continuing education program. I’m very proud of it.
What is something you don’t like about your career?
What I don’t like is that in most settings, the field can be devalued. I’ve worked with two award-winning programs that were closed due to budget cuts. One was at the Western State Hospital in Virginia and the other was a co-ed Alzheimer’s unit in Shenandoah Valley.
There are other cases where we had a rehabilitation service line and they decided to close it and merge it with nursing homes. That happens a lot in our field. In the mid-1980s we had a lot of flourishing geriatric units that were closed in the later part of the decade and the early 1990s.
Do you see the field of gerontology changing, and what should we expect in the future?
I expect a lot of unmet need and a lot of opportunity, but a lot of frustration at the same time. The frustration will be because of a need for advocacy. Geriatrics is going to continue to be a high-touch, not necessarily high-tech field.
What I mean by that is that it’s centered on behavioral healthcare as opposed to procedures from the medical field. That part is going to remain, but our health care system is not prepared for it.
With the financial impact of so many older adults hitting the health care system, I’m guessing we’re going to remain under serving older adults.
That’s why people who enter this field need to be loud voices about vitality and delivering psychological services to those who are later in life.
For more information about what exactly a Gerontologist does and how to become one, please feel free to visit our Gerontologist careers page in the careers section of our website.