I often get messages like the ones below from Baby Boomers who are caring for aging parents and attempting to locate health care that matches the special requirements of the elderly. Finding the appropriate sort of care may be difficult, but a little knowledge and certain crucial resources can go a long way.
Q: My 81-year-old mother recently collapsed and was taken to the hospital. The doctor who examined her recommended that she consult a geriatrician. What exactly is a geriatrician, and why should she consult one?
A: A geriatrician is a doctor who specializes in caring for elderly people, particularly those with complicated health issues. Older individuals, like children, have distinct health-care requirements. Our bodies change in a variety of ways as we age, which has an impact on our health. We are more prone to acquire chronic health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, as well as need many drugs (all with potential side effects). Approximately 80% of persons 65 and older have at least one chronic health issue, and 50% have at least two. As we age, it becomes more difficult to recover from diseases.
Q: I’ve tried unsuccessfully to locate a geriatrician for my folks. Why don’t there seem to be more geriatricians? How should I proceed?
A: There are now less than 7,000 practicing geriatricians in the United States. That equates to around one geriatrician for every 5,000 persons over the age of 65. Finding a geriatrician will likely become much more challenging over the next 20 years as the country’s 77 million Baby Boomers approach retirement age. To prepare for the “Aging Boom,” we must fund programs that educate geriatricians as well as better equip other health care workers to care for the elderly. Until recently, the federal government’s “Title VII” geriatric health professions program supported geriatric education centers and young medical school faculty who trained medical students, primary care physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other providers to better meet the health care needs of older adults. Regrettably, Congress cut all funding for this initiative in late 2005. For the benefit of all elderly Americans, we must reinstate this money.