Geriatric care is the name for the specialized health and wellness services provided to the elderly. As our population becomes increasingly older, thanks to the demographic bulge of the Baby Boomer generation, the need for this care has become important to families everywhere. Centro Medico Latino, serving Charlotte, NC is highly experienced in caring for geriatric patients and their families.
Understanding Geriatric Care
Senior parents and other aging loved ones often require specialized health attention. Achieving and maintaining optimal health and wellness for geriatric patients, however, is more than a matter of just medicine. Effective care for geriatrics is a job for teamwork between health professionals and caregivers. Both come together to manage health conditions and provide a safe, positive environment for their seniors.
Many health problems occur or intensify simply as a result of the aging process. In the geriatric patient, these problems are often complicated by additional declines in physical or mental abilities. This often leads to a spiral where the patient isn’t able to keep up with their own care and negative health episodes become more likely or frequent.
To combat these issues, there are two key types of geriatric care that work together for good health. These are geriatric medicine and geriatric care management.
The doctor’s role in the geriatric equation is the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases experienced by older adults. Geriatric medicine is actually a specialty, but geriatricians take a broad approach in treating the patient in a holistic way.
In addition to treating specific diseases among patients, geriatric doctors look at a broad range of risk conditions, including:
- Delirium – confusion or re-occurring mental disruptions
- Dementia – decline in memory or judgment
- Falls – the primary cause of fatal and non-fatal injury in seniors
- Incontinence – the inability to control bodily elimination
- Polypharmacy – possible negative interactions between drugs
Geriatric Care Management
The caregiver’s role for the geriatric patient is often assumed by family members but also includes professional home care services when needed. Regardless of who is supervising the care, there are a host of details to keep up regularly, including:
- Meals – diet supervision and scheduling
- Medications – up-to-date lists and schedules
- Socialization – keeping the patient from isolation
- Prevention – understanding symptoms that could need attention
Geriatricians consider these many factors and more when treating their patients. They also focus on the emotional needs of these patients and their families who are coming to terms with the need for extra care.
Why Has Geriatric Care Become Important?
As they grow older, people face challenges to their health that didn’t exist before. Perceptual systems start to decline, leading to poor eyesight, hearing and coordination. Neurological problems often start or begin to worsen. Daily activities become more of a strain and bad health days become more common. There’s simply more work involved to maintain health and wellness.
There are many conditions and diseases that are common in geriatric patients. Some are called “acute,” meaning that they come on suddenly as an episode, such as a urinary tract infection. Others are chronic conditions, such as arthritis or COPD, which the older person simply lives with as best he or she can. Finally, there are emerging conditions that usually appear only with advancing age, such as dementia.
People are living longer lives than they ever had before. In 1950, the life expectancy for newborns was 68 years in North America. Today in the U.S., it has shot past 78 years. The 85 and over population is projected to more than double in the next 20 years. America’s population of persons aged 90 and older has almost tripled since 1980.
Even for people who had always been healthy and stayed in shape, longer lifespans inevitably bring the need for more care as their bodies age. Acute episodes happen more frequently. Chronic conditions take more attention or medications to manage. Emerging conditions begin to show the first symptoms.
Common Geriatric Health Issues
The most widespread categories of impairment that appear in the elderly, especially as they become increasingly frail, are called the “geriatric giants” by specialists. They include immobility, incontinence and impaired mental function, among others. All of these are common areas of decline in the elderly. Their effect can obviously have a serious negative impact, not only on the patient but also their caregivers.
This condition means a person is unable to reliably control their bladder and leaks by accident. This causes embarrassment and often leads to isolation. While this disease can happen to anyone, it is more common in older people, and especially women. When treated by an experienced geriatrician, incontinence can often be cured or controlled.
The symptoms of incontinence may not even be directly related to the person’s ability to control elimination. Problems with mobility and walking may prevent elders from getting around to help themselves. Pain from arthritis or slow reactions due to medications can mean not getting to the bathroom on time. Incontinence is a serious issue and merits medical attention.
Sleep apnea is a condition where people stop breathing while they sleep. People with this disease sometimes stop breathing hundreds of times during the night, often for as long as a minute. Sleep apnea is seen more frequently among men than among women, especially among Hispanic and African-American men.
Left untreated, sleep apnea can have serious and life-shortening consequences. A lack of restoring sleep in patients has been linked to everything from heart disease, strokes, depression and high blood pressure to automobile accidents.
Sleep apnea can be treated through diagnosis, simple devices and lifestyle changes. A variety of breathing assistants are available to help ease the condition. Further, the geriatrician can help assess and treat the causes of sleep apnea, such as obesity, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Osteoporosis is a loss of bone tissue that occurs with age and leads to weak and fragile bones. Osteoporosis increases the risk for broken bones during a fall, particularly in the hip and wrist. About one in three seniors fall each year, and senior falls cause over 3 million emergency room visits annually.
Most of those who suffer from osteoporosis and the consequences of these falls are women. Of people age 50 and older, women are far more likely to have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime. In all, some 40% of women will experience a broken bone due to osteoporosis during their lifetime.
Medical treatment for osteoporosis is based on slowing down or stopping the bone loss and finding the right threshold of pain relief for the condition. A geriatrician can identify osteoporosis and arrange referrals to appropriate specialists if needed. They can also help with insights concerning diet and exercise to help manage living with the disease.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. When the cartilage between bones starts to wear down from age, joints can get painful and swollen from the lack of cushioning. About 30 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Osteoarthritis occurs most often in hands, knees, hips, lower back and neck. Pain can be moderate to debilitating. While the disease can affect people of any age, it usually starts when people enter their 50s. As with osteoporosis, women are affected more than men.
Geriatric doctors can diagnose this disease through a review of symptoms, a thorough physical exam, and if needed, additional imaging and lab tests. When the condition has become troublesome to live with, the geriatrician can make a referral to a rheumatologist: a doctor who specializes in arthritis.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually, it can stop the ability to carry out even the simplest activities for daily living. Experts suggest that as many as 5.5 million Americans age 65 and older may have Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among the elderly.
Symptoms of the disease often first appear in the mid-60s age range. Memory problems are typically one of the first signs, though actual symptoms may vary from person to person.
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is not a preventable condition. However, a number of lifestyle risk factors that can contribute to Alzheimer’s or intensify it, can be modified. The geriatrician can help provide guidance to patients and their families for dealing with this disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Because the disease is progressive, symptoms start gradually. Tremors are common, but the disorder also commonly causes stiffness of the limbs or slowing of movement.
In the early stages of Parkinson’s, the patient’s facial expression may look altered. Balance during walking and daily activities becomes impaired. Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as the condition progresses over time.
There’s no one specific test for Parkinson’s disease. Geriatric care will usually make a first diagnosis based on symptoms and an exam. While there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, there are medications that can help manage the symptoms.
Health and Wellness for Geriatrics
Living with old age is more than just managing medications. In order to keep the geriatric patient at their best, a host of non-medical factors, particularly emotional factors, also come into play. Health is physical, but it is also a state of mind.
For example, the ability to remain socially engaged and feel connected to family and loved ones is especially important to the geriatric patient. With failing health comes isolation, which can be just as deadly as physical disease. Researchers have found that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.
In treating the geriatric patient, the patient’s family and living environment play important roles. Managing the patient’s symptoms and providing activities for daily living, including diet, exercise and social engagements, all contribute greatly to the emotional well-being of the elderly. Geriatric care can help the family navigate these challenges, through both direct care, referrals and support strategies.
Where Can I Go for Help?
When seeking medical attention for geriatric patients, it is important to find health professionals that can help the entire family navigate the challenges of caring for their elderly loved ones.
Many of the medical conditions and symptoms that our elderly loved ones have to live with can now be managed better than ever before. Advances in diagnostics, imaging, medications and patient learning can ease pain and discomfort while bringing stability and confidence back to the family caregivers. Wisdom from the geriatric doctor can guide the aging journey safely and with care.
Contact our team at Centro Médico Latino in Charlotte, NC today to learn more and get the help you need.