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What is Geriatric Psychiatry?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Geriatric psychiatry is a type of medical practice specializing in the mental health of older patients. Doctors who practice this type of psychiatry typically have extensive knowledge of the effects of aging on the mind, including not only the physical processes of aging but the social processes as well. While treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s makes up a large part of geriatric psychiatry, mental disorders like depression and anxiety are equally as common. The specific challenges facing senior patients can lead to a number of unique manifestations of mental illness that require an experienced doctor in order to achieve effective treatment.

Older adults often experience a number of emotional problems that are related directly to age. Feeling abandoned, lonely, or otherwise unhappy is common in older adults, and geriatric psychiatry can provide treatment before the condition spirals out of control. When left untreated, depression in seniors can be mistaken for dementia or senility. It is important to determine the source of the troubles in order to treat them effectively.

One unfortunate effect of aging is often pain. Chronic pain and other health problems can cause older adults to feel helpless and act out. Understanding the effects of one's actions is important even in old age, and part of geriatric psychiatry is often helping older patients interact with younger family members. By helping the patient to maintain a network of familiar support, the psychiatrist can often prevent the patient’s loved ones from becoming estranged or distant.

Serious mental problems, such as dementia or memory loss, can also be treated by geriatric psychiatry. Often, by alleviating some of the stress caused by these disorders, the disorders themselves become less severe. Usually, practitioners of geriatric psychiatry find that a comprehensive approach that addresses all disorders is the best way to overcome symptoms in older patients. When problems like dementia and depression interact, they can be much more difficult to treat.

While it is certainly necessary to seek treatment for mental health problems in older patients once they have become apparent, it is also possible to prevent problems from developing by seeking treatment before any problems arise. Geriatric psychiatry can be used not only to heal but also to maintain a certain quality of life and mental health in old age. Having a relationship with a professional who understands a specific patient's baseline mental health can be very beneficial when attempting to treat problems later in life and may be extremely helpful when determining if a problem is due to the degradation of the brain or merely a temporary situation.

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