Updated December 2022
The global population of seniors is growing at a rapid rate. According to the World Health Organization, the worldwide number of people 60 and older will more than double between 2020 and 2050—from one billion to 2.1 billion.
As this number grows, healthcare providers are recognizing the increasing importance of geriatrics. Tending to the complex needs of our aging population demands a highly specialized skillset.
Unfortunately, the number of people with those skills seems to be shrinking. We just don't have enough geriatrics professionals, from pharmacy to home care to nursing to medicine.
This skills gap is creating opportunities for people who want to specialize in elder care—particularly people who are already working in the health care and social services fields.
Are you thinking of pursuing gerontology training to shift into geriatrics? Take a look at 10 special skills you'll need to thrive in this role and deliver optimal support to aging patients.
1. Knowledge of the aging process
As we age, we undergo a range of physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual changes. Caregivers who work with seniors need to understand these changes so they can offer the right kind of support.
For example, gerontology training explores the effects of isolation and loneliness on seniors and offers tools to encourage social interaction even in the face of common obstacles, such as restricted mobility, chronic health conditions, and mental illness.
It's also important to understand the impact of losing a spouse, transitioning into retirement, coping with a degenerative disease, and other experiences commonly associated with growing old.
The better your grasp of these issues and challenges, the better prepared you'll be to provide meaningful support that truly improves quality of life for the seniors in your care.
2. Promoting physical and emotional well-being
What is the best way to encourage an elderly patient to get exercise and eat well? What should you know about the connection between aging and depression?
Did you realize that older people often experience a loss of appetite and decreased sense of taste and smell? How do you approach nutrition if your patient doesn't feel like eating?
In order to promote physical and emotional well-being, caregivers of elderly patients need a special toolkit of resources and knowledge. They need to be aware of community supports, strategies for ensuring proper nutrition and exercise, and activity ideas for patients at various levels of physical and cognitive ability.
Every patient is different. You'll need to anticipate roadblocks and be ready to adapt your approach so each person in your care has the chance to thrive. Gerontology courses deliver a range of practical tools and techniques in this area.
3. Recognition of common geriatric health issues
Adults face a variety of common health issues as they age. Conditions like dementia, depression, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are highly prevalent among seniors.
According to the National Council on Aging, about 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic disease and 68 percent have at least two.
It's crucial for caregivers to understand the symptoms and characteristics of common geriatric health issues. This awareness builds empathy and helps the caregiver deliver support that is tailored to each patient's special needs.
4. Understanding of elder abuse, warning signs
The World Health Organization has published some alarming data from a 2017 study on elder abuse, which spanned 28 countries from diverse regions. That study found that one in six people aged 60 and over experienced abuse in the previous year.
The most common form of abuse was psychological, followed by physical abuse, financial abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse.
Symptoms of abuse ranged from scratches, bruises, and broken bones to long-lasting psychological consequences, such as depression and anxiety.
A follow-up study found that victims of elder abuse are twice more likely to die prematurely than people who are not victims of elder abuse.
These are sobering facts. Anyone who works with elderly people in the community should be aware of the nature and symptoms of elder abuse in order to protect our seniors from this growing problem.
5. Keen observation & critical thinking
The ability to spot changes in health, and report on those changes swiftly and accurately, is key for caregivers who work with the elderly. This includes keen observation, consistent documentation, and good communication with other members of the healthcare team.
Quickly noticing a change in behavior, habits, or health can make the difference between life and death for an elderly patient. Prompt identification leads to early intervention—which can save lives.
6. Verbal & non-verbal communication
What is the best way to communicate with an elderly patient who has lost their ability to speak, or is hearing impaired? What about a patient who has limited vision, or suffers from memory loss?
If you work with the elderly, understanding the nuances of verbal and non-verbal communication is truly a crucial skill. Strong communication builds trust—which is a fundamental element of any care plan.
For example, geriatrics professionals need to be conscious of body language. They should avoid jargon and complex language, and observe patients closely to determine which communication style works best.
This way, they can ease patients' concerns about the care process, properly address questions, and instill a sense of compassion, respect, and confidence.
7. Geriatric health assessment tools
Gerontology training usually includes a model for holistic health assessment. Caregivers need a reliable framework for evaluating an older person's functional ability, physical health, cognition and mental health, and social circumstances.
Even a basic screening tool (or checklist) can be extremely helpful for identifying problems and developing a care plan that addresses everyday needs and challenges.
Is a patient showing warning signs of a cognitive disorder or mental health issue? Are they at risk for balance problems and falls? What questions can you ask, and what signs can you look for, to determine if special support is needed?
Everyone from home health care aides and social workers to nurses and doctors can benefit from special training in this area.
8. Safe moving and handling techniques
Working with elderly patients almost always involves helping with mobility. Seniors often have reduced mobility, issues with balance, or in some cases severe physical disabilities.
To support them effectively, geriatrics specialists need to know safe moving and handling techniques—both with and without equipment.
From everyday tasks like dressing and bathing to attending social activities, access to secure mobility support is crucial for the well-being and safety of elderly patients.
9. Legal & ethical issues related to aging
Issues around consent and decision-making ability are common when caring for elderly patients. Understanding how capacity is assessed, how to deal with substitute decision-makers, and policy around medically assisted dying are key for geriatrics professionals.
This is all part of developing an advanced care plan, so having a grounding in these ethical and legal areas is extremely beneficial for senior caregivers.
10. Patience & Compassion
On top of all the technical skills and special knowledge needed to effectively care for elderly patients, geriatrics professionals also need an exceptional bedside manner. They need to listen patiently, respond compassionately, and be ready to offer emotional support.
And this applies not just to the patient, but also to their family members—who must cope with a loved one's deteriorating health, and eventually, death. Being sensitive to all these issues and being able to connect and build trust are definitely key requirements for working in this field.
Gerontology training and professional development
Given how complex senior care can be, one of the most important attributes for success in the field is a willingness to continue learning. Gerontology is rapidly evolving, with changing care techniques, social policy, community resources, and legal issues.
To really serve patients well, geriatrics professionals need to stay on top of the latest research, tools, and best practices.
Looking for targeted gerontology training to help you build new skills and get up to date on the latest approaches to senior care?
Take a look at the Gerontology Certificate offered by Kompass Professional Development. This 12-week program is delivered online and is appropriate for anyone who wants to specialize in geriatrics.
Click below to see a detailed course list, meet the instructor, and learn about pricing. An advisor is available for online chat and can answer any questions you have about the certificate. We're here to help!