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Working with older adults

The aging of the population is creating unprecedented opportunities and responsibilities for psychologists, but drawing them into the geropsychology field remains a challenge

By 2050, nearly 84 million Americans will be age 65 or older, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of these adults will continue to enjoy stable mental health—in fact, historically, the rates of mental health

disorders for this group are lower than those of younger adults. However, one in four older adults will experience a mental health problem such as depression or anxiety, and the physical and cognitive changes some people experience as they age can make these issues even more challenging. In addition, as some people age, their risk of suicide increases: The suicide rate for men age 85 years and older is nearly 39 percent higher than that of any other age group, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention. Another cause for concern is substance use problems among older adults. By 2020, the number of older adults with substance use issues is expected to double to 5 million, likely attributable to the higher drug use rates among the baby boomer generation compared with previous generations.

Pair these needs with the meager number of psychologists who specialize in geropsychology—only 1.2 percent of psychologists, according to 2018 data from APA’s Center for Workforce Studies—and it’s clear there is a crisis brewing when it comes to serving older adults (Training and Education in Professional Psychology, in press). In fact, in 2012, the Institute of Medicine reported that health providers from all disciplines were woefully underprepared to meet the mental and behavioral health needs of the nation’s older adult population.

In response, psychology is boosting its efforts to prepare more psychologists to treat
older adults, focusing not only on creating specialists but also on training all psychologists on the special needs of this population. This training is particularly essential as the country continues to move toward “age-friendly health systems,” an approach that focuses on the four Ms: mobility, medications, mentation/mental activity, and what matters. Led by the American Hospital Association’s Health Research & Educational Trust, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the method is designed to ensure that older adults get the best care possible.

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