Nov 27, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Aging is a natural process. However, the aging population presents unique challenges across all aspects of society. This is seen no more clearly than in the healthcare sector. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts, “All countries need to be prepared to address the consequences of demographic trends. Dealing with the increasing burden of chronic diseases requires health promotion and disease prevention intervention at community level as well as disease management strategies within their healthcare system.”

On the frontlines of these efforts? Tomorrow’s healthcare practitioners. If you are planning to be among them, read on for a roundup of five things you should know about caring for older patients.

1. They are rapidly growing in number.

Seniors currently constitute a massive segment of the population, and their presence is growing every day. According to WHO, the number of people aged 60 and over will double by 2025 and skyrocket to just under two billion by 2050. In the US, meanwhile, people aged 65 and older will make up nearly a quarter of all residents by the year 2060, according to Census data.

This growth is due to a combination of factors, including the 'baby boom' and increased life expectancy due to social and economic advancement. However, this means more people will be living with chronic health conditions. “The majority of older people will be living in developing countries that are often the least prepared to confront the challenges of rapidly aging societies,” continues WHO.

2. There are common diagnoses you should know about.

Research indicates strong doctor-patient relationships lead to better outcomes for patients. When treating senior patients in particular, the importance of understanding and empathy cannot be overstated.

For starters, many older people suffer from hearing loss, which can make them seem difficult. Speaking loudly and enunciating, repeating yourself, and reducing background noise are all ways to support open lines of communication.

Additionally, there are several common diagnoses among the elderly, including heart conditions, dementia, delirium, and depression. While broaching these topics at first meeting may not be appropriate or helpful, keeping these in mind can lead to important insights.

3. Not all medical programs prioritize geriatric care. 

With the elderly population rising, some medical schools are introducing programs aimed at helping students develop more accurate, stereotype-free perceptions of older patients.

One co-chief of geriatrics who created such a program explains, “Unfortunately, most education takes place within the hospital. If you’re only seeing the hospitalized elderly, you’re seeing the debilitated, the physically deteriorating, the demented. It’s easy to pick up ageist stereotypes.”

So when considering programs, look into whether they include a component that addresses healthy, active elders as well as those with chronic conditions.

4. Explain to patients -- and their loved ones.

Some doctors make the mistake of talking down to seniors and their family members because they assume they don’t or won’t understand. However, taking the time to explain can make all the difference.

One 92-year-old told a group of medical school students of the difficulties he experienced after his wife was diagnosed with dementia and doctors failed to prepare him for what would come next. “You are knowledgeable in treating patients, but I’m the patient, too, and if someone had said she can’t control anything, I would have been better able to understand what was taking place,” he said.

5. It can be an extremely rewarding field.

Given the growing older population, it follows that students in all specialties of medicines will be seeing seniors. “No matter what you’ll be doing, you are going to be working with these folks,” says geriatrician and med school professor Elizabeth O’Toole.

However, geriatricians will be especially in demand. As of 2015, there were only 7,000 practicing geriatricians in the US and a projected need for 30,000 geriatricians by 2030, according to the American Geriatrics Society. And while geriatrics may not be the sexiest or most lucrative of medical professions, it does come with its share of unique benefits, including everything from versatility to the chance to act as a bridge between what individuals want and the type of care they receive.

For these reasons and more, geriatrics often ranks highly in assessments of career satisfaction. The American Geriatrics Society says, “Geriatrics healthcare professionals cite their encounters with inspirational older adults, the deep and meaningful relationships they develop, and the typically steady work hours as significant factors adding to their job satisfaction.”

Learn more about studying geriatric medicine.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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