Geriatric Mental Health Care And Psychiatry

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As it can for people at every stage of life, aging often presents a variety of unique psychological and mental health challenges for older adults. To help address these concerns, geriatric psychiatry focuses on providing these individuals with comprehensive mental health care. Geriatric psychiatrists are mental health professionals who diagnose mental health conditions, prescribe medications, and direct treatment plans in order to help care for older adults. Below, we’re going to discuss what geriatric psychiatrists do, why they are important, and how you can find the right professional for you.

Mental health professionals can help people of all ages

What are geriatric psychiatrists?

Geriatric psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medications, diagnose mental health disorders, and otherwise treat psychological concerns in older adults. Because they are one of few types of mental health professionals who can provide both diagnoses and prescriptions, they often play a key role in the treatment of various conditions. 

Geriatric psychiatry is a field of medicine focused on addressing the mental health needs of the elderly—a demographic usually defined as individuals 65 and older. When it comes to treating clients in this age group, there are some key points that healthcare professionals may need to consider. Older individuals may not be able to take an active role in their mental health treatment. They also may require differing amounts of support or assistance from other people in their life, which might include their family or medical staff. 

Regardless of the specific challenges they may face, many older individuals require a tailored form of treatment that addresses their mental, physical, emotional, and social needs. A geriatric psychiatrist may work with an individual’s primary care provider, therapist, and other professionals to create a multi-faceted treatment plan. They can also work with an older adult’s family members, who may play an important role in improving mental health care outcomes.

What is the required training for a psychiatrist?

In addition to completing medical school, geriatric psychiatrists are typically required to complete a four-year residency in general psychiatry. They then usually complete a one-year residency that is focused on geriatric psychiatry. In addition to completing training that helps them prepare to address the mental health challenges that older adults experience, they are often required to obtain certain qualifications In this way, the therapist can be better prepared to provide the specialized and individualized care that an older client may need. 

Given the advances in healthcare and an increasing societal focus on wellness, the population of older adults is growing rapidly. In fact, from 2010 to 2020, the number of people 65 and over in the United States increased by 38.6%. With this significant increase in the population of older adults comes the need for more mental health professionals who can provide them with care. It is thought that the demand for geriatric psychiatrists will grow significantly in the coming years.   


Why  health care for older adults is important

Quality mental health care can be vital to individuals of all ages, but it can be particularly important to the elderly. As we get older, we often experience changes in our lives that can affect our mental and physical health. Shifts in our lifestyles, family dynamics, financial situations, and other parts of life can drastically change the way we live each day and what kind of help we need. Geriatric psychiatry seeks to understand how the realities of living as an older adult can impact mental health. 

Mental health support for physical ailments and challenges

Some people choose to see a geriatric psychiatrist as a result of mental health challenges that are related to a physical health concern, such as a stroke, heart disease, chronic pain, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, or other medical conditions. Certain chronic health conditions can increase the risk of an individual developing depression. Because of their training and experience, psychiatrists may be uniquely qualified to treat older adults with physical and mental illnesses. These professionals can help facilitate better outcomes in primary care, emergency treatment, and other contexts by understanding the risk factors that may exacerbate symptoms of both medical and psychiatric disorders. 

Additionally, mental health conditions often impact older adults differently than they do people of different ages. For example, depressive symptoms affect cognition more than mood in many older adults. These concerns can be compounded by the stigma surrounding mental health treatment, which—though it is being reduced through public awareness—remains a significant barrier to care for the elderly.  

Psychiatrists can also help clients process the emotional challenges that often accompany getting older. Social isolation is a common concern among the elderly that can lead to difficult-to-process emotions. Retirement, the loss of loved ones, and other experiences can lead to a lack of social support, increasing loneliness, and other complex feelings. 

Individuals may also experience elder abuse in later life, which can cause or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and other mental health conditions. Mental, physical, emotional, or financial abuse of elders can also lead to further isolation. Geriatric mental health professionals can help these individuals process trauma, work through their feelings, and connect with other useful resources, such as support groups.   

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Older adults can also experience several cognitive challenges that may accompany aging. There are certain neurodegenerative diseases that primarily affect older individuals, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Additionally, a general decline in cognitive function occurs with aging. This can lead to confusion, frustration, anger, or sadness. Geriatric psychiatrists can help clients focus on these challenges so that they can improve facets of cognitive function like memory and attention. 

Alternatively, a patient may simply be looking to meet with healthcare providers who can understand how aging may impact their needs. A psychiatrist can help such an individual continue to engage in good mental health practices as part of an overall approach to wellness. If you’re experiencing mental health challenges related to aging, consider meeting with a licensed mental health professional, whether a geriatric psychiatrist, a therapist, or another provider. 

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Mental health professionals can help people of all ages

How treatment progresses

When an older adult seeks psychiatric treatment, there will typically be a consultation or an initial session in which the psychiatrist conducts medical examinations, provides screenings, and asks questions about the individual’s history, lifestyle, and symptoms. If necessary, the psychiatrist may then diagnose the individual with a mental health disorder. They may also help the individual develop a treatment plan, which could include medication, therapy, or a combination of the two.

Because it can also be important for an older individual to have a place to express themselves and discuss their feelings, a psychiatrist may also provide therapy. Most clients who would benefit from therapy, however, will be referred to another mental health professional. While they can provide psychotherapy, fewer and fewer psychiatrists include it as part of their practice. 

After the initial sessions with a psychiatrist, clients will typically check in regularly to provide information on how their symptoms are progressing and how the treatment plan is working. Based on this feedback, the psychiatrist may decide to change the dosage of a certain medication or prescribe a different or supplemental drug that will better address the individual’s symptoms. 

Finding support and services

If you’re an older adult seeking mental health care, there are several ways you can connect with a geriatric psychiatrist or other mental health services. A good place to start is typically your insurance provider, to find out if you’re covered. Your carrier’s provider lookup tool can typically help you narrow down a list of professionals who specialize in geriatric psychiatry. If you’re covered under Medicare, you can use its search feature and filter providers based on whether they practice geriatric psychiatry. 

Additionally, your primary care provider can refer you to a geriatric psychiatrist. You can also find a list of geriatric psychiatrists near you by utilizing the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry’s (AAGP) site. Or you can simply conduct your own online search to find the right professional for you. You can also find more information on geriatric mental health care through the AAGP’s Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, which has numerous resources for older adults living with challenges that affect their well-being. 

Seeking care through online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can help older adults navigate mental health challenges. For example, in a study published in the journal Behavior Therapy, researchers found that online cognitive behavioral therapy led to significant reductions in symptoms of depression in participants, who were all over 60 years of age. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a widely utilized modality focused on helping individuals reframe negative thought patterns, such as those that may lead to maladaptive emotions and behaviors associated with aging and depression. 

If you’re living with mental health concerns related to getting older, consider trying the resources and support provided by an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist remotely, which can be helpful if you’re not as comfortable leaving home. BetterHelp works with thousands of mental health professionals—who have a wide range of specialties—so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can address your specific concerns regarding aging or other important life changes. 


Geriatric psychiatry is a specialized field that aims to provide older adults with mental health care. While it may not differ drastically from general psychiatry in terms of its goals, it incorporates the unique needs and realities of living as an older person into its practice. If you feel that you could benefit from support as you navigate challenges related to aging, consider utilizing an online therapy platform. With the right tools and guidance, you can take the next steps on your mental health journey and continue to thrive regardless of your age.

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