The term geriatric includes parts of two Greek words that mean “old man” and “healer.” Geriatric care is a medical specialty focused on the medical needs and care of older people. It is also just called geriatrics or geriatric medicine. Family medicine doctors provide geriatric care to their older patients, and some may specialize in certain aspects of geriatric care.
Just as children are not small adults, older people have some specific health care needs that are different from those of the young or middle-aged. Elderly patients are more likely to take multiple medications, which increases the risk of side effects and interactions. Diagnosing a problem in an elderly patient may be more difficult, as the symptoms can be quite vague. Elderly people may suffer from dementia, which makes their care more complex and raises a variety of safety issues.
Geriatric care is often a team effort because elderly patients may have a variety of different needs. In most cases, the team is led by a family medicine doctor or an internist. Other members of the team may include nurses, social workers, pharmacists, and physical and occupational therapists. Geriatric care may be provided to patients who are still living independently in their own homes, to patients in retirement facilities or those in assisted living.
Although medication management can be an issue for patients of any age, it is particularly important in the elderly. Elderly patients may not metabolize medicines well, and are more prone to side effects in many cases. They have lower physiological reserves and can become very ill from conditions that wouldn't bother a younger patient, like mild dehydration. Dementia from conditions like Alzheimer’s disease can complicate medication management, physical care, and overall safety. When elderly patients are hospitalized, they may become easily confused, and are at risk of falls or may be unable to cooperate in their care or follow instructions. Ethical issues such as elder abuse, the mental competence to make decisions and end-of-life issues are all special considerations in geriatric care.
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