Have you ever heard of the term “geropsychology”?
Geropsychology is the branch of psychology, relating to the issues affecting older adults.
As with younger adults, these issues can include a variety of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
However there are also stressors common in later life, which can significantly affect the health and independence of older adults. These may include:
- adapting to and coping with late-life transitions
- multiple medical conditions
- functional limitations
- cognitive changes
- chronic pain
- caring for an infirm family member.
What is a Geropsychologist?
Geropsychologists use psychological interventions, including various psychotherapies, to help older adults deal with mental health disorders and late-life stressors.
The most common psychological interventions include cognitive behavioural (CBT), interpersonal, and psychodynamic psychotherapy; behaviour modification and disease management strategies; cognitive training techniques; and environmental modification.
Alone or in combination with psychiatric medications, psychological interventions have been shown to be effective in the treatment of many mental health disorders.
The availability of non-pharmacological treatments for mental health problems is especially important for older adults. This is because they are often on multiple medications for physical health problems, are more prone to certain adverse side effects of psychiatric medications than younger individuals, and, as noted, often prefer psychotherapy to psychiatric medications.
Geropsychologists conduct research on and provide treatment for a wide range of mental health disorders and life problems that affect older adults, including:
- Adjustment to the stressors of late life. Psychologists work with older patients to deal with the many life stressors that accompany aging, such as decline in health, loss of loved ones, and relocation to a new living situation.
- Anxiety disorders. Psychologists use psychotherapy and supportive counselling to treat anxiety disorders in older adults, the frequency of which is comparable to that of depression in younger people. Anxiety-related disorders include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive–compulsive disorder.
- Caregiving. Although the role of caregiving can be rewarding, it can also be quite stressful and taxing. Caregivers may suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, anger, and stress-related health problems, including cardiovascular disease. Psychologists help family members to better deal with the practical and emotional demands of caring for a physically or cognitively impaired older relative.
- Dementia. Psychologists help individuals who are in the early stages of dementia build coping strategies and reduce distress through psychotherapy and psycho-educational support groups. Memory training strategies help to optimise remaining cognitive abilities. Psychologists can also teach behavioural and environmental strategies to caregivers, to help them deal with common behaviours such as aggression and wandering. Unlike sedating medications, these strategies do not lead to additional confusion or impairment of mental functioning. In addition, as individuals with dementia often also suffer from depression, paranoia, and anxiety, the psychologists’ skills in differential diagnosis and treatment are helpful in these complex cases.
- Depression. Depression in older adults is a very treatable disorder. However, symptoms of depression in older adults are often overlooked because they are inaccurately assumed to be a normal part of aging, or may coincide with medical illnesses or life events that commonly occur as people age. Psychologists successfully identify and treat both major depressive disorder and sub-clinical forms of depression with psychotherapy.
- Health promotion. As experts in human behaviour, psychologists have been at the forefront in developing effective health promotion programs and strategies to enhance healthy behaviours. Two examples of health promotion efforts that have proven beneficial for older adults include memory-training programs that enhance memory performance and physical activity programs that elevate mood, relieve symptoms of depression, and contribute to the effective management of hypertension and diabetes.
- Insomnia. Insomnia is prevalent among older adults, especially those with a medical illness. Older adults are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of sleep medications, including memory impairment and impaired daytime performance. Psychologists have developed effective non-pharmacologic treatments for insomnia, including cognitive behavioural techniques, sleep restriction and stimulus control, and sleep hygiene instruction.
- Management of chronic diseases. Psychologists help older adults manage multiple chronic medical conditions that often accompany aging, such as heart disease, stroke, and arthritis. A major goal of such management is to prevent excess disability and hospitalisation through treatment adherence and behavioural interventions, including physical activity, biofeedback, nutrition, and stress reduction techniques.
- Substance abuse. Alcohol abuse is a significant problem for some older adults and is one of the eight leading causes of death among older Australians. Psychologists can help older adults boost their motivation to stop drinking, identify circumstances that trigger drinking, and learn new methods to cope with high-risk drinking situations. Some older adults have problems with addiction to prescription medication for anxiety and need help in reducing or stopping medication. In addition, as the baby boomer cohort enters old age, the prevalence of both alcohol and illicit drug use will likely increase.
- Suicide. Older adults have the highest rates of suicide in Australia; depression is suicide’s foremost risk factor. Psychologists are skilled at identifying depression and assessing for suicide risk. Those at risk for suicide are often not identified by primary health care providers. It has been reported that two-fifths of older adults who commit suicide visited a physician within the past week and three-quarters within the past month. Primary care providers often overlook the potential link between physical symptoms and mental health problems.
If you are in the later years of life and are struggling to manage the challenges ahead, or are concerned about an elderly loved one, I specialise in Geropsychology and welcome you to make an appointment with me.
David is a Clinical Psychologist, with a keen interest in working with older people and their families. He strives to provide a safe environment for his clients to explore their issues and, with assistance, develop new techniques which will help them change their unproductive behaviours. The aim is to have a happier life that assists people reach their relationship, personal and life goals.
Dr David Wells is currently on extended leave. If you would like to book with an alternative clinician with similar expertise, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.