Geropsychologist

Geropsychologist & Gerontologist

According to the Federal Interagency Forum on AgingRelated Statistics’ Older Americans 2012 report, it is estimated that by the year 2020, 72 million people or 20% of the U.S. population will be 65 years or older, compared to 40 million people or 13% in the year 2010. As the population grows older, the demand for new and existing types of gerontology professionals increases. Such professionals work in a variety of fields, from physical therapy, social work and law to nursing, interior design and psychology.

“Geropsychology is the field within psychology that applies the knowledge and methods of psychology to understanding and helping older persons and their families maintain well-being, overcome problems, and achieve maximum potential during later life,” states the American Psychology Association (APA)’s Office on Aging. The APA Office adds that “It’s a time of growth for geropsychology!” and there is a great need for geropsychologists to keep pace with this growing field.

Geropsychologist Career Profile

  • Degree Level Requirements: Ph.D. of Psy.D to be recognized as a geropsychologist/geriatric psychologist.
  • Licensure Requirements: Required for gerontologists who provide psychological services and may be required for other psychologists working in gerontology as well. (Requirements vary by jurisdiction).
  • Specializations: There are numerous specializations, such as cognitive diseases, mental illnesses, bereavement and major life changes (like loss of independence or relocation).
  • Median Annual Salaries: $68,640*
  • Job Outlook: 22% growth from 2010 to 2020**

A psychologist working in the field of the aging population may be called a gerontologist, geropsychologist or geriatric psychologist, among other titles. There are also careers for those interested in the psychological aspects of gerontology that do not require a person completing a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.).

What is Gerontology?

Gerontology is the field of aging, generally focusing on individuals getting older from middle age onwards.Gerontology is a multidisciplinary field that investigates the sociology, biology and psychology of aging, according to the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE).

“As a result of the multidisciplinary focus of gerontology, professionals from diverse fields call themselves ‘gerontologists,’” states the AGHE.

“Geropsychology is the field within psychology that applies the knowledge and methods of psychology to understanding and helping older persons and their families maintain well-being, overcome problems, and achieve maximum potential during later life,” states the APA’s Office on Aging.

Career & Job Description

There are numerous career opportunities for a gerontologist/geropsychologist and many lead fascinating, multi-faceted professions. “Heather Smith, PhD, ‘wears multiple hats’ as a staff geropsychologist at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Milwaukee,” wrote Melissa Dittman for the American Psychology Association (APA)’s Career Center. “She does cognitive and mood assessments, individual and group therapy, teaching and supervision of psychology trainees, consultations with families and team consultation–such as working with nursing staff in nursing homes.”

Psychology focused gerontologists work in a variety of settings, including long term care and assisted living facilities, research centers, universities, outpatient clinics, community service organizations, private practices, hospices, government agencies, hospitals, legal settings, nursing homes, Veterans Affairs facilities and more.

A geropsychologist may perform one or more of the following during the course of their career:

  • Evaluates patients/clients to assess the presence of psychological/cognitive concerns and illnesses.
  • Provides counseling and psychotherapy to individuals, families and groups.
  • Serves as an expert witness or consultant for legal proceedings, such as when it comes to the legal capacity of an elderly individual.
  • Helps determine patient/client needs and assists with developing care plans.
  • Researches a specialized area of geropsychology at a university, research center or organization, such as the Gerontological Society of America or VA Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Centers.
  • Communicates findings or expertise in various ways, from training human service staff to publishing research findings.
  • Develops therapeutic programs, such as recreational or healthy living activities, for older adults.
  • Analyzes policy, programs and services provided to aging adults, makes recommendations on how they may be improved and advocates.
  • As a professor, teaches university students, supervises and mentors students in both clinical and research settings and often conducts own research at the same time.
  • Collaborates with many different professionals, such as nurses, physicians, physical therapists, social workers, lawyers, researchers, service providers, recreational therapists, nutritionists, family members, representatives of grant organizations and more.

Specializations & Concentrations

There are numerous sub-specialties within the field of gerontology. If a geropsychologist is providing therapy, conducting research, teaching a college class, or all of the above, they will probably come across many of the facets relevant to the psychology of aging.

Depending on their specific vocation, they may also become experts in certain geriatric specializations, such as:

Table 1: Geropsychologist Qualifications
geriatric specializations
Substance abuse among older adults
Cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease/dementia
Elderly individuals dealing with life transitions, such as loss of independence, relocation, not being able to work, isolation (due to many peers having passed away).
Older adults dealing with chronic physical illness/disease, such as arthritis, heart disease and cancer.
Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, psychosis and other mental illnesses.
Elderly individuals dealing with life transitions, such as loss of independence, relocation, not being able to work, isolation (due to many peers having passed away).
Support for individuals approaching death and their loved ones/caregivers.
Sleep Disorders
Socio-economic and multicultural demographics
How aging differences from one cohort to the next.
Impact on caregivers

The Educational Journey

To become a geropsychologist (also known as geriatric psychologist or gerontologist within the discipline of psychology) you need to earn a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). Along your academic journey you can gain worthwhile experience working with or on behalf of older adults.

Whether you decide to become a full-fledged psychologist or remain in the workforce after a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, working within the gerontology field will be fulfilling and significant as you will be striving to improve the quality of living for those in the last stages of their life. Plus working directly with older adults will be rewarding as they share their impressive wisdom and intriguing life stories.

Complete Bachelor’s Complete a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (or a related field) and take courses such as Cognition and Aging, Adult Development, Developmental Psychology, Clinical Psychology or Health Psychology. Try to complete a relevant internship or volunteer experience (such as at a rehabilitation centre or nursing home) even if it is not required. Your school might also offer the option of completing a certificate program or minoring in gerontology at the same time, or after you complete your degree.
Relevant Careers Relevant careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: Substance Abuse Counselor, Assessment Counselor, Social Worker Assistant, Activity Director, Research Assistant, Geriatric Residential Counselor, Psychiatric Technician, Case Manager and more. Note that some of these positions require licensure/certification and/or previous related experience.
Master’s Degree Master’s Degree: Complete a Master’s in Psychology Degree with the option of concentrating in Gerontology or Geropsychology. If this is not an option you could also choose to do a geropsychology-related thesis project or practicum.
Careers with Master’s Degree Careers with a Master’s Degree: Rehabilitation Counselor, Family Counselor, Research Associate or Supervisor, Mental Health Counselor, Outreach Coordinator or Program Coordinator for a relevant organization (such as the Alzheimer’s Association), Peer Support Specialist, Long Term Care Coordinator and more. Note that some of these positions require licensure/certification and/or previous related experience.
Doctoral Degree Doctoral Degree: To become a recognized psychologist, you must complete a Ph.D. or Psy.D. If you would like to specialize in gerontology, universities offer programs, such as a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a Geropsychology concentration; a Psy.D. in Psychology with a Geropsychology track; a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology with a Gerontological Psychology specialty; and a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology that has coursework, practica and research opportunities in geropsychology.

Note that there is more than one possible educational journey to becoming a geropsychologist. For example, some do not begin to specialize in gerontology until their doctoral degree. Dittman (APA’s Career Center) adds, “If your program does not offer a geropsychology track, [Heather Smith, PhD] recommends taking classes in adult development and aging and getting experience in cognitive and neuropsychological assessment, or seeking out cross-disciplinary degree certificates in geriatrics that may be offered outside your psychology program.”

““Working within the gerontology field will be fulfilling and significant as you will be striving to improve the quality of living for those in the last stages of their life.”

Certification & Licensing Requirements

Gerontological psychologists that practice clinical and counseling roles must be licensed. A geropsychologist that focuses on research or academia might not need to be licensed (depending on jurisdiction and workplace), but a growing number of employers are now requiring or preferring licensure as well.

The Future
“The National Institute on Aging estimates that 5,000 full-time, doctoral-level geropsychologists will be needed by 2020 to accommodate the increasing demands of aging baby boomers.” – Melissa Dittman, American Psychology Association (APA)’s Career Center.

The Association of State and Licensing Boards outlines the state-by-state requirements for licensure. Generally speaking, to become licensed you must have successfully completed a doctoral degree and approximately two years of supervised practice (often one year is done during the doctoral degree). You usually have to pass qualifying exams (often the EPPP national exam and a state jurisprudence exam). Again requirements vary by state and your jurisdiction may require other obligations, such as an oral exam.

The ABPP (American Board of Professional Psychology), which offers certification in numerous sub-specialties (credentials that demonstrate expertise), is in the process of adopting the American Board of Geropsychology with the intent of offering certification in geropsychology.

Fact Facts

  • Approximately 80% of older adults suffer from a chronic health disease or condition (such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes or cancer); 50% suffer from two or more chronic conditions. – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • “…older adults are at an increased risk for experiencing depression,” says the CDC, particularly if they are suffering from long term debilitating conditions.
  • Up to 20% of older adults suffer from depression and 11% suffer from anxiety disorders. For those living in long term/primary care facilities, an estimated 37% suffer from depression. – American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Approximately 17% of older adults suffer from substance abuse problems – APA.
  • Approximately 1 in 8 individuals (or 5.3 million Americans) suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease – APA
  • National data from 2007 reported that one elderly individual committed suicide every 97 minutes; and elderly individuals committing suicide represented 15.7% of the U.S. suicide rate (at that time elderly individuals made up 12.5% of the total population) – American Association of Suicidology (AAS)
  • References:
  • * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-5
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-6
  • http://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm
  • http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/aging/mental-health.aspx
  • http://www.suicidology.org/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=232&name=DLFE-242.pdf

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