Psychology covers a wide range of subjects related to the human mind. From thoughts and feelings to behaviors to mental disabilities and more, the field of psychology routinely attempts to plumb the depths of the human brain and psyche. No one psychologist can possibly address all the subsets of this thriving discipline, so a specific focus becomes essential. Geropsychology is one of the most rewarding choices.
Geropsychology is the practice of psychology related to the elderly, hence the prefix “gero,” which means “old age” or “the aged.” The aging of the baby boomer generation is largely responsible for the growth in the older population, and their presence is creating increasing demand for psychologists who can provide mental and behavioral health services to older people. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, a shortage in this kind of specialty mental health profession currently exists, and “this shortage will become increasingly problematic as the aging population and the demand for specialized mental and behavioral health services increases.”
Moreover, the National Institute on Aging predicts that by the year 2050, the elderly will account for 17 percent of the world’s population, representing a significant segment that will need psychological assistance and services in the future.
Overview of Geropsychology
Geropsychology, the field that specifically addresses the mental health problems of older adults, along with the issues faced by their families and caretakers, also takes into account social services, residential organizations, and medical institutions, all with the goal of helping seniors navigate the complex world of later life.
Those who practice geropsychology may focus on depression, dementia, anxiety, mental disabilities, poverty, retirement, bereavement, family relationships, sexuality, the search for meaning in late life, and even the challenges of facing death. These services may be delivered in clinical, outpatient or inpatient settings, or in the home, and, as noted, the coming decades will experience an ever-increasing demand for practicing geropsychologists.
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Geropsychology, while it is predicated on the fundamentals of psychology, is a more specific disciplinary niche that only in the last few decades has begun to receive the attention necessary to ensure that the elderly are cared for in an optimal manner. The wide diversity among the senior cohort and the variety of their issues mean that practitioners in the field must consider their patients’ differences in income level, age, spousal relationships, location, health, value systems, and beliefs. Professionals are tasked with helping their patients find a measure of peace, happiness, and serenity, even during this often-difficult period for the aged and their families.
What Does a Geropsychologist Do?
To help seniors have the greatest possible opportunity for a long and happy life, a professional geropsychologist, depending on specialty, may assess and diagnose patients for mental disability or emotional instability, help the patients face depression and anxiety, and assist them with grief or poor health issues. They may also refer patients to practicing psychiatrists, who can prescribe medications to help them deal with mental or emotional disorders.
Geropsychologists also help address the challenges of dementia. This disease affects millions of Americans, and it makes life significantly harder for both the elderly and their caregivers. Forgetful seniors who wander away from home ― especially common in those with Sundowner Syndrome, which often causes victims to become confused ― or those who cannot recall important relationships need assistance with maintaining a reasonable quality of life.
Geropsychologists may also:
- Provide advice as to optimal living situations and everyday activities
- Help family members, caretakers, and friends understand the changes in the patient
- Assess alterations in mental state
- Evaluate current conditions of seniors and provide advice as to best practices solutions
- Help patients cope with the specific challenges arising from illness or age, such as pain or limited mobility
- Advise caregivers in performing tasks and keeping their charges as healthy as possible
- Assess living situations and caregiving to ensure humane management of care
- Provide end-of-life care
- Talk one-on-one with patients about challenges, such as family conflict; changing roles; losing a spouse to Alzheimer’s or death, for instance; or other common rigors of age
- Consult with nurses and other medical professionals
- Train other geropsychologists in proper practices
- Teach in colleges or universities
- Research the most common problems affecting the elderly and publish scholarly papers to help others understand their multiple issues
No matter which approach you take, know that a geropsychologist’s role is crucial to society. Although adolescents or younger adults are often considered most at risk of committing suicide, the senior population is actually the population most at risk. By offering services that help seniors cope with old age, cognitive impairment, and loss of mental abilities, geropsychologists can help mitigate this reality.
Typical Work Environment & Occupational Challenges
Depending on the population with whom you choose to work, you may find yourself in any number of environments on a day-to-day basis. Since the elderly are hospitalized more regularly than younger people and experience a higher incidence of injury and disease, geropsychologists often work in hospitals and clinical settings.
Others may work for a VA (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs) hospital or organization. The VA is largely populated by the elderly who have served tours in the U.S. Armed Forces and survived foreign wars. These seniors are more likely than most to become afflicted with psychological disturbances because of the trauma inflicted by their wartime experiences. Common issues include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and issues related to injury.
A hospice setting represents another typical work environment. Those facing the end of their lives who receive palliative care sometimes go into a hospice, a facility specifically dedicated to helping them live their final days in peace, or receive hospice care in their homes. For seniors who aren’t ready to move to a hospice but still need a higher degree of care, nursing homes represent an option and therefore are also an employment option for geropsychologists.
Geropsychologists also visit patients in their homes or receive individual patients, couples, and families in private practices. In this case, they rent their offices, provide talk therapy in that setting, and sometimes provide referrals for additional medical services or social services.
Educational institutions; state and federal health departments; state, federal, nonprofit, or nongovernmental organizations; and research organizations also comprise the environments in which geropsychologists typically find employment. However, this is not an exhaustive list. However, your opportunities are limited by the availability in your market as well as the level of expertise you achieved in college.
The primary challenges faced by geropsychologists include enduring long hours, working in often-depressing situations, and experiencing burnout, so specialists in this field should remain alert as to how the job is affecting them. Before becoming overwhelmed, take the steps necessary to avert these symptoms.
Geropsychologist: Salary & Job Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for a psychologist is approximately $75,000 a year, or $36.17 per hour. This figure represents only an average, however, which means that the nature and location of the job, as well as the length of tenure in the field, can increase salary by a significant amount. The field is projected to grow at a rate of 19 percent between the years 2014 and 2024, so job availability should remain favorable for those who qualify.
Some geropsychologists may come to this career through the field of social work. Though the title “psychologist” differs from that of social worker, they perform many of the same duties and have similar responsibilities. Those who become geropsycholgists in this manner can expect to earn considerably less, or about $47,000 annually and $22.54 per hour. Additionally, this field is growing at a rate of only 12 percent. However, this growth represents a faster-than-average rate, and becoming a geropsychologist via this route can provide practice in the field and become a stepping stone to employment.
Geropsychology: Jobs & Job Description
Geropsychologists work primarily with patients, though they also frequently interact with their colleagues, medical professionals, social workers, and the patient’s family members. Most of their day-to-day activities include talking with patients, demonstrating exercises, and helping caregivers understand the best methods to assist their patients. Geropsychologists also must complete a great deal of paperwork to track their patients. To perform their jobs at a high level, they must possess a variety of skill sets, character traits, and knowledge types, including:
- Proficiency in assessment and evaluation
- Ability to provide advice as to how to intervene correctly
- Sense of compassion
- Good communication skills and bedside manner
- Understanding of basic psychology and human development
- Basic medical knowledge
- Better-than-average writing and organizational skills
- Familiarity with health and social services
Geropsychology: Degrees & Education
To become a geropsychologist, you must first earn a degree in psychology. While those with a bachelor’s degree can assist professional geropsychologists, it is not possible to use the title “psychologist” in any state or Washington, D.C., without first earning a master’s or doctoral degree. A master’s degree is required to open a practice.
Of course, a bachelor’s degree comprises a prerequisite for application to any psychology program. However, the degree can not only be in the field of psychology, but also in a related course of study: social work, sociology, or healthcare. Applicants who do not have a related degree must take a variety of classes before applying for a master’s program to ensure the necessary prerequisites.
Your college program will focus on geropsychology in addition to the more basic fundamentals of psychological practice. Most states require that psychologists complete a specific number of internship hours supervised by a practicing psychologist. Your specific program and the job you want dictate the number of necessary hours and if an apprenticeship program must be completed upon graduation.
Following graduation, those who plan to practice geropsychology must first pass a licensing examination, which is overseen by the governing board in their state. For instance, the American Board of Geropsychology (ABGERO) and the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offer a joint national certification program, though you may find a state-specific alternative.
Certification enables you to work in even more specialized fields, such as neurology. You can explore the range of available certificates while in college, or inquire through professional organizations such as the Council of Professional Geropsychology Training Programs. The Veterans Administration may also provide information as to the requirements for working with the elderly.
Both licensure and certifications must be renewed periodically by the acquisition of continuing education hours, so to avoid a lapse, remember the expiration dates of both your license and certification and steadily earn the required hours as you work in your career.
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