Understanding Geriatric Behavioral Health: Overview and FAQ

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Written by Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
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Reviewed by Katherine Zheng, PhD, BSN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse meeting with a nursing home resident, holds her hand and shows compassion.

If you operate a long-term care facility, you’re likely considering ways to prepare for our aging population. By 2030, the number of aging Americans is expected to increase from 12% to 20%. As the aging population increases, so does the complexity of their needs.

It’s important for facilities to consider the biopsychosocial needs of their residents, including care for mental health conditions associated with aging. This is possible with the support of a geriatric behavioral health specialist. Read about what their services involve and how their efforts improve holistic care of the older adult.

What Is Geriatric Psychiatry?

Aging is a complex mental and emotional process. Older adults (aged 65 and over) may experience physical or life changes that affect mental health. Experiencing the loss of loved ones — and facing the end of their own lives — places older adults at an increased risk of anxiety and depression. Other disease processes, like Alzheimer’s, cause memory, mood, and behavioral changes.

It can be hard for caregivers and providers to understand the complexity of an older adult’s mental health needs, or even how to respond to them. Providers with expertise in geriatric behavioral health consider the emotional, physical, and social needs of the older adult. They have the tools to diagnose and treat mental health conditions an older adult may experience.

Who Provides Behavioral Health Treatment?

Practitioners who may provide geriatric mental health care include geriatric psychiatrists, psychologists, or nurse practitioners. A geriatric psychiatrist prevents, evaluates, diagnoses, and treats mental and emotional disorders in the elderly. They take into account the psychiatric disturbances of aging and the psychiatric effects of chronic conditions.

Common mental health disorders a geriatric psychiatrist may treat include:

  • dementia
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • bipolar disorder
  • later-life schizophrenia

A geriatric psychiatrist also considers someone’s overall health picture when managing mental health conditions. Many older adults have comorbid conditions that impact behavioral health such as:

  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • chronic pain
  • Parkinson’s disease

Why Is There A Need For This Service?

By 2030, the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP) expects the number of older adults with mental illness to double to 15 million. By 2060, the number of adults living with Alzheimer’s is expected to double to 13 million.

A geriatric mental health specialist has scientific knowledge about mental health and aging. Their specialized training considers the biopsychosocial needs of an older adult. Geriatric psychiatrists see patients in practice settings such as:

  • hospitals
  • private practice
  • assisted living facilities
  • veteran care centers
  • in-patient care centers

Depending on your location, you may have access to a geriatric behavioral health long-term care program that sees patients or residents at your facility. At a consultation visit, a geriatric psychiatric specialist may deliver services such as:

  • diagnostic assessments of mood disorders
  • decision-making assessments
  • grief counseling
  • family consultation
  • medication management
  • non-pharmacological behavior management

Do In-House Doctors Treat Mental Health Conditions?

Most long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes or assisted living, have an in-house family medicine doctor called an attending physician. This individual oversees medical care for residents, including medication management, therapies, testing, and more. Residents may choose to continue seeing their primary family doctor to manage their care.

It’s common for family medicine doctors or nurse practitioners to manage mental health conditions. In fact, about two-thirds of depression cases are managed by primary care doctors. While family medicine doctors are well-prepared to treat mental health conditions, their ability to deliver targeted behavioral health therapy may be limited. A board-certified geriatric psychiatrist has the education and training to dive deeper into an older adult’s mental health needs.

Benefits of Working With a Geriatric Psychiatrist

Including this type of specialist in the care team at a long-term care facility has many benefits. It helps the care team customize its approach to a patient or resident’s care, which can drastically improve their quality of life.

Adequate treatment may also reduce the burden on families and direct care staff, who often experience caregiver strain. This can be a major relief at facilities with a high volume of residents with behavioral health challenges. When caregivers have a better understanding of their residents’ needs, their working relationship improves — and so does job satisfaction.

Where to Find a Behavioral Health Specialist

As a facility leader, you may be wondering how to find a geriatric psychiatrist to best serve your residents. Visit AAGP online to find a geriatric psychiatrist in your area. You may also consider searching for a geriatric behavioral health long-term care service to visit your facility.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) offers mental health services for older adults in qualifying Medicaid facilities. To qualify, a nursing home or long-term care facility must be considered an “Institution for Mental Diseases” (IMD). Check to see if your state offers a service called “IMD over 65” for Medicaid patients.

Find More Ways to Serve Your Residents

Offering services like geriatric behavioral health at your facility can help maximize your residents’ quality of life. You’re providing them mental relief from the struggles of aging, an invaluable gift. Don’t miss out on our latest resources to help you provide the best holistic, person-centered care.