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Do you need a geriatrician?

Helping older people navigate the ageing process, geriatricians fill a vital role in the community. But are they right for you?

Whether you’re looking after elderly parents or concerned about your own health and wellbeing as you age, becoming familiar with the valuable contribution geriatricians can make to older people’s lives is a good idea.

But what does a geriatrician do and where do they work?

Seeking optimal medical outcomes for older patients, geriatricians are experts in the assessment, diagnosis and management of health issues that commonly affect older people.

Working in hospitals, outpatient clinics, residential homes and both public and private practices, geriatricians complete extensive advanced training after finishing a Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS).

Older people who take a number of medications, live with multiple medical conditions or have been diagnosed with neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia would benefit from the specialist advice.

“Geriatricians are trained to identify and assess decline in an older person and put in place strategies to minimise or reverse the impact on function. This is often undertaken by multidisciplinary teams including nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers and pharmacists,” says associate professor Eddy Strivens, geriatrician and president of the Australian and New Zealand Society for Geriatric Medicine.

Generational change

Dr Strivens notes that with baby boomers living longer (and with more complex health conditions) than previous generations, geriatricians provide an essential service that a growing number of Australian people will need in the coming years.

“Geriatricians encourage sustained independence by supporting rehabilitation from an acute illness, minimising any potential decline in health and wellbeing caused by chronic health issues, and reducing the impact of multiple medications,” Dr Strivens says.

In the same way that paediatricians are experts in the care of children, geriatricians are experts trained in the care of older people. Just as children are more likely to be impacted by particular illnesses, older people are also more susceptible to certain conditions. “Some of the main issues that geriatricians are seeing as a priority at the moment are dementia, falls and fractures, frailty, and other medical conditions that become more common as you age,” Dr Strivens says.

Planning ahead

Wishing to remain healthy and independent as we age is a common hope, but it’s also wise to be aware of the potential challenges that lie ahead.

Communicating your wishes to your family and friends is important. If a medical emergency or unexpected illness occurs, your caregivers will be in the best position to advocate for you on your behalf if you’ve communicated your wishes beforehand.  

Dr Strivens believes that older people should also speak to their GP about advance care planning, so that healthcare workers are aware of their wishes before they become too unwell to make decisions for themselves.

Admittance to a residential aged care facility is often fraught with fear, yet Dr Strivens notes that a comprehensive health assessment carried out by a geriatrician prior to being admitted can help to identify any reversible, treatable issues that could allow a patient to remain independent for longer.

“We successfully treat many conditions common to older people, and through professional assessment and tailored intervention, help many older people maintain their independence and remain at home,” Dr Strivens says. “We see ageing in a positive light and recognise the importance of health for every individual irrespective of age. We know older people have a lot to contribute to our society and know professional care by geriatricians can be vital to support ageing well.”