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What Is Geropsychology?

You may not have heard of it, but you or someone you love just might need it.

The world of psychology has a range of specialties. Some psychologists focus on helping people with a specific disorder, offering a certain kind of treatment, or serving particular groups such as veterans.

While many have heard of child psychologists, few are aware that there is another age-related niche within the field. Geropsychology is a specialty that focuses on understanding, treating, and improving the mental health of older adults. To do this, we also work with families and caregivers. We often consult within different systems of care such as skilled nursing or assisted living facilities. We also engage in advocacy for the needs of older adults, and have a role collaborating with other health care professionals and social service agencies.

Esther Ann/Unsplash
Source: Esther Ann/Unsplash

Psychologists have long cared about aging and mental health, and the American Psychological Association has had a division focused on Adult Development and Aging since the 1940s. However, it was not until the 2010s that geropsychology became recognized as a distinct specialty area by the American Board of Professional Psychology, with its own standards for board certification.

Geropsychologists have a uniquely sophisticated understanding of older adults’ strengths as well as the unique constellation of challenges that commonly arise at this phase of life. We are aware of the best research on aging, such as studies showing that most individuals’ mental health improves with age. With this in mind, we don’t make the all-too-common assumption that aging itself is inherently difficult or depressing. However, we are also aware of the particular challenges that tend to face older adults and become more common with advancing age. We understand ageism, and the intersections of age and other marginalized identities that create particularly negative outcomes for too many older adults.

Some geropsychologists focus more on end-of-life care, and others work specifically with older adults with dementia or their caregivers. That said, the specialty is much larger than what I call “the two Ds” of dementia and death. We also help our clients adapt to changes in their roles within their families such as becoming a grandparent or a full-time caregiver. We help people navigate the often choppy waters on the journey to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. We help people grieve their losses, mitigate isolation, and live their best lives with whatever illnesses may arise.

We also help people manage and compensate for cognitive changes, fight ageism, and handle other potential stressors that may arise. Older adults with depression, anxiety, or other mental health difficulties will be helped by geropsychologists who understand how these conditions tend to show up differently with age. Many geropsychologists also conduct assessments to better understand older adults’ decision-making capacity and cognitive abilities. We often work closely with medical providers and have a rich understanding of the intersections between physical and mental health.

Many psychologists who are not specialists can competently serve older adults whose difficulties are similar to those faced by adults across the lifespan, and some are even quite experienced doing so. This is good, because the unfortunate reality is that there are far fewer geropsychologists than is needed given the changing demographics of our society. Geropsychology can benefit all who have the privilege of getting older, which is an increasingly large number of our diverse global community.

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