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Health Answers

When does a person need to see a geriatrician?

Q. When does a person need to see a geriatrician?

A. Geriatric physicians and nurses are specially trained to provide primary care for elderly patients. But not everyone over a certain age needs a geriatrician, says Clare Wohlgemuth, nursing director of geriatric services at Boston Medical Center. The time to seek one is when the complexities of aging and multiple health problems are beyond what a regular primary care physician can manage.

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Geriatricians are trained not only to look at specific health symptoms but to evaluate how well patients cope in their day-to-day lives. “We in geriatrics think in terms of functional status,” she explains, which includes how well patients can take care of themselves, manage activities like shopping and cooking, keep track of finances, and remain socially connected. For elderly people, “function equals health,” Wohlgemuth says, more so than their specific medical conditions.

In addition to getting a prescription, for instance, an elderly person who is in poor health might need help following a medication regimen, recovering from an acute illness while managing other chronic conditions, or staying active in spite of reduced mobility. A geriatrician can help address these issues and coordinate care from other specialists.

The decision to seek a geriatrician often comes from a patient's family members. Although geriatrics is a relatively small medical subspecialty, primary care doctors are also increasingly being trained to care for older patients. Wohlgemuth says the important thing is to find a doctor who has experience with elderly patients and is sensitive to their needs.

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