Last Updated: January 24, 2015
From arthritis to diabetes, hearing loss to cancer, seniors are
treated for a wide range of medical conditions, and they and their
caregivers can face a sometimes bewildering array of doctors.
Deciphering all the different specialties in medicine sometimes
seems to require an advanced degree itself, but your health can
depend on making the right choice.
So we'd like to help you with this guide to the types of
geriatric care specialists that seniors are most likely to need for
their health care. Some of the specialists may have advanced
training and be specially certified in geriatrics, the care of
A geriatrician is a medical doctor trained in providing clinical
care for adults 65 years and older. She or he can be either a
family practice or internal medicine physician, but has additional
training in geriatric care.
But, because the United States is facing a critical shortage of
geriatricians, seniors are more likely to get the bulk of their
medical care from their Primary Care Physician, who may focus on
either family medicine or internal medicine. While seniors may be
dealing with several medical problems at once, it's best to start
with a PCP rather than assuming they need to see a number of
"Seniors see, on average, 12 different physicians a year. But,
that can be a recipe for disaster. They really need a medical home
to help them coordinate the care they need," explains Dr. Patricia
Borman, Director of Advanced Training in Geriatrics at Swedish
Medical Center in Seattle. "Only about 5% truly need specialty
Seniors may see an audiologist to diagnose and treat hearing
loss. It is estimated that hearing loss affects about 30% of people
over age 65 and half of people in their 80s. The University of
Florida reports it is the third most common chronic condition in
seniors. Left untreated, hearing loss can contribute to depression
and social isolation.
A physician that a senior is likely to see at some point is a
cardiologist. A cardiologist is an internal medicine physician who
specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the
heart and blood vessels. A senior may be referred to a cardiologist
if they have coronary artery disease, heart
failure, valvular heart disease or a congenital heart defect. A
cardiologist may recommend a patient receive medication or a pacemaker
or defibrillator to maintain their heart's normal electrical
If your parent has adult onset diabetes, chances are they will
see an endocrinologist to help manage it. Endocrinologists
specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the
endocrine system, which includes various hormones and glands such
as the thyroid, pancreas, and adrenal glands. Type 2 diabetes can
worsen the symptoms of other health problems occurring in seniors,
so it's important that diabetes is managed well.
Family Practice Physician
If your doctor isn't a geriatrician, she or he may be a family
practice physician,who provides broad-based medical care for all
ages, from youth to seniors. Many families prefer to have one
family practice doctor familiar with the whole family's needs.
Family practice physicians can handle most of a patient's routine
medical care without referring out to specialists. For example,
they could take care of minor dermatological problems without
having to refer patients to a dermatologist.
Geriatricians take an interdisciplinary approach to health care.
A geriatrician is trained to ask comprehensive
questions about a senior's overall quality of life-not just
about their particular medical issue-to develop a personalized plan
of geriatric care. For example, if a senior is complaining of back
problems, a geriatrician will ask how that is impacting their life.
Often, rather than just seeing a specialist to deal with the pain,
what the senior really needs is help around the house, cleaning, or
A geriatrician will then work with a team of nurse
practitioners, psychiatrists, surgical specialists, pharmacists,
social workers, and physical and occupational therapists to make
sure their patient gets exactly the right kind of help.
A geropsychiatrist, also known as a geriatric psychiatrist is a
medical doctor trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat the mental
health needs and specific syndromes faced by older adults. While
many psychiatrists can provide help to seniors, geropsychiatrists
have specialized training in senior care. They may prescribe
medications and can also provide counseling.
A gerontologist may be a part of this team. Gerontologists study
aging, but provide non-clinical geriatric care, such as social
work. Gerontologists study the mental, physical, and social changes
in people as they age, and how that affects society as a whole.
They then use that knowledge to affect programs and policies.
Instead of a family practice physician, patients may prefer an
internist. An internist is a medical doctor trained in the
diagnosis and non-surgical treatment of diseases in adults
(internal medicine). Internists may have subspecialties in allergy
and immunology, cardiology (heart), endocrinology (hormone
disorders), hematology (blood disorders), infectious diseases,
gastroenterology (diseases of the gut), nephrology (kidney
diseases), oncology (cancer), pulmonology (lung disorders), and
rheumatology (arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders).
A nephrologist is a medical doctor specializing in kidney
diseases, transplantation, and dialysis therapy. They may treat
patients for short-term problems such as inflammation of the
kidneys, or long-term problems such as chronic kidney disease or cancer.
Some specialize in treating certain age groups.
A neurologist is a medical doctor or osteopath trained in the
diagnosis and treatment of nervous system disorders, including
diseases of the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and muscles.
Neurologists will examine a patient's muscle strength, movement,
balance, reflexes, memory, speech, language, and other cognitive
abilities. If your elderly parent has had a stroke
or has dementia
Parkinson's disease, a neurologist may handle their care.
Neurologists may perform diagnostic tests such as CAT scans, MRIs,
or spinal taps.
A Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian can assess how well a
senior's nutritional needs are being met. They may provide specific
recommendations about which foods to choose and how to prepare
them, and will work with seniors who experience appetite problems,
weight loss, or difficulty chewing.
With a man's lifetime risk of developing some kind of cancer at
about 50%, and a woman's risk at about 30%, one doctor a senior may
see is an oncologist. Oncologists may specialize in certain types
of cancer, as well as types of treatment. For example, a radiation
oncologist will specialize in using radiation to treat tumors,
while a medical oncologist will specialize in using drugs to treat
the tumors, also called lesions.
Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who can diagnose and treat
several vision conditions affecting the elderly, including
age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which creates a loss of
sharp, central vision needed for driving, reading and recognizing
faces. AMD is the leading cause of visual impairment and blindness
in Americans over 65. Ophthalmologist can also treat cataracts,
which cloud the eye's lens and are the leading cause of blindness
in the world, and glaucoma, which causes the loss of peripheral
Seniors interested in an alternative approach to medicine may want
to choose an Osteopath. An osteopath is a doctor with training
similar to a medical doctor, but she or he manipulates the muscular
and skeletal systems to help the body heal itself. Osteopaths may
prescribe medication, perform surgery, and often use manipulation
techniques similar to chiropractic or physical therapy.
Next to their doctors, one of the most important health care
professionals for seniors is their pharmacist. Seniors should pick
one pharmacy and be on a first-name basis with their pharmacist.
Dr. Borman explains that about 50% of all U.S. prescription
medicines are for seniors, even though they make up only about 13%
of the population. It's important that seniors not only tell their
doctor every type of medication they're taking, it's important that
their pharmacist also know, to help them avoid dangerous drug
interactions. Some pharmacists-called Consultant
Pharmacists-specialize in geriatric care, and often work in nursing homes.
Physical therapists and occupational therapists are not medical
doctors, but have specialized training in improving quality of life
in people of all ages. For example, a physical therapist will help
a senior recover mobility and strength after a fall, stroke, or
surgery, and help them learn to use a wheelchair or transfer
themselves from chair to bed. An occupational therapist will help
seniors who have difficulty caring for themselves learn a different
way to tie their shoes, dress, or bathe, so they can remain as
independent as possible.
Another type of doctor frequently seen by the elderly is a
Ppulmonologist. This physician practices a subspecialty of internal
medicine: the diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary (lung)
conditions and diseases. Emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia
all require special care in seniors. Diseases of the pulmonary
system affect the amount of oxygen-rich blood in the body, which
could lead to heart problems such as pulmonary hypertension,
arrhythmias, or heart failure.
A rheumatologistis an internal medicine physician who
specializes in diagnosing and treating arthritis and other diseases
of the joints, muscles and bones, including rheumatoid arthritis,
osteoarthritis, gout, lupus, back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia,
Speech Language Pathologist
A speech therapist may be needed after a stroke or injury that
affects the voice or impacts a senior's ability to swallow
A urologist is a surgical specialist in problems of the urinary
system in both males and females, as well as the male reproductive
organs. Seniors may see a urologist for conditions such as
urinary infections, bladder cancer,
incontinence, or sexual dysfunctions.
Finding the right geriatric care specialist who can treat you or
your loved one appropriately is only part of the challenge. Because
today's doctor-patient relationships are more collaborative than
ever, seniors need to find someone who truly listens to them. It's
not always easy to do, but you or your loved one's good health
depends on it.