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Senior Citizen's Guide to South Jersey

What is a Geriatrician?

In a 1963 message to Congress, President John F. Kennedy wrote, "It is not enough for a great nation merely to have added new years to life – our objective must also be to add new life to those years."

At the time, President Kennedy was speaking of the health and welfare of senior citizens in America, shortly before the enactment of the legislation that created the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  But he could just as easily have been speaking to the future health care needs of the baby boom generation, the last of whom would be born the following year. 

Today, 47 years after his message, the first of the baby boomers stands on the cusp of the traditional retirement age.  Beginning next year, the oldest of that generation will turn 65.  Twenty years from now, nearly one out of every five Americans will be 65 years or older and 8.7 million will be at least 85 years old.  Currently, nearly 1.2 million New Jersey residents have already reached age 65 and more than 175,000 residents are older than 85.

The impact of boomers as they age will resonate throughout American society.  It's estimated that, ultimately, three million members of this group will eventually live to see their 100th birthday and that by the year 2050, more than one million will have already reached that milestone.

These are incredible numbers that will have a significant impact on many areas of American life, not the least of which will be the health care industry.  According to the American Geriatrics Society, adults older than 65 represent just 13 percent of our country's population, but they account for a disproportionate amount of health services, including:

At the same time, 80 percent of older adults require medical care for at least one chronic medical condition.

When children need medical care, parents don't hesitate to seek out the services of pediatricians because they know that pediatricians are specially trained in the health care needs of life's early years.  The same should hold true for your senior years.  Older individuals have many unique medical and health needs.  So it only makes sense to consider the services and advice of a medical professional who specializes in recognizing and responding to those needs.

Geriatrics has been a certified medical specialty for only slightly more than 20 years, so it's not surprising that many people are unclear about the services that geriatricians offer.  Geriatricians are physicians – usually specialists in internal or family medicine – who have received additional training in the often complex area of the medical, social and psychological needs of older patients.

Growing older doesn't cause disease, but a number of chronic and acute medical conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and dementia, are related to the aging process, and two or more of these conditions will often occur simultaneously.  In fact, the average 75-year-old has three chronic conditions and takes five different prescription drugs daily.  When a patient has multiple chronic diseases, symptoms of one illness can mask those of another.  Acute infections, drug interactions or inappropriate dosage levels can cause illness, confusion or delirium in older patients.  A geriatrician will not only be able to recognize how multiple conditions or medications are affecting an individual patient, but will also be trained to look for social and psychological factors that could also affect an older individual's health.

Older individuals also face many obstacles beyond medical conditions that can impact their health.  Many lack easy access to transportation, have limited financial resources and must rely on someone else to help them with the activities of daily living.  Often, they are unfamiliar with community resources and don't know where to turn for assistance.  Geriatricians are experts at understanding these needs and knowing the community-based resources available to older adults.  A geriatrician will work closely with patients and their families to develop individualized plans of care based on the patient's abilities and priorities.

The mission of geriatric medicine isn't only to care for individuals when they become too frail to care for themselves.  The goal of geriatricians is to help their patients maintain a healthy lifestyle that will allow them to continue living independently in their communities for as long as possible.

Successful aging means more than adding years to your life.  It means adding life to your years.  If you have reached your mid-50s or are older, you may want to consider contacting a geriatrician to help you make and follow the lifestyle and medical choices that will enable you to remain healthy, active and independent.  

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