Students looking for a career that allows interdisciplinary work on a wide range of issues--including depression, anxiety, medical conditions, family relationships, retirement, diminished mental capacity, sexuality and poverty--may find their niche in geropsychology. What's more, geropsychologists are very much in demand, and students who choose a career in geropsychology have a variety of career options.
"They will be on the ground floor of a very important area of practice in the future--it can't help but to be," says Greg Hinrichsen, PhD, director of psychology training at the Zucker Hillside Hospital geropsychology training program in New York.
Why It's Hot:
By 2030, older adults will account for 20 percent of the nation's population--compared with 13 percent today, according to a 2001 report by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In fact, people 65 years old and older are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.
However, researchers expect there will not be enough geropsychologists trained to handle the increasing demand for psychological services from this age group. The National Institute on Aging estimates that 5,000 full-time, doctoral-level geropsychologists will be needed by 2020 to accommodate the increasing demands of aging baby boomers. In 1991, slightly more than 700 psychologists who spent at least half of their time working with older adults were listed in the National Register of Health Service Providers.
Coupled with the need for more geropsychologists, the number of adults with mental disorders and behavioral health problems in 2030 is expected to reach 15 million--four times the number in 1970, according to HHS. In addition, older adults have the highest rates of suicide of any age group.
What You Can Do:
Heather Smith, PhD, "wears multiple hats" as a staff geropsychologist at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Milwaukee. She does cognitive and mood assessments, individual and group therapy, teaching and supervision of psychology trainees, consultations with families and team consultation--such as working with nursing staff in nursing homes. Smith also educates caregivers about dementia and offers grief and bereavement support.
"A huge pro of being a geropsychologist is all the diversity in what I get to do on a daily basis," Smith says.
VA hospitals are major leaders in offering geropsychology jobs, but that's not the only place to practice. Geropsychologists are employed in outpatient and long-term care facilities, full-time private practices, academic positions and research centers--such as the National Institutes of Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Plus, some geropsychologists work with lawyers on assessments of legal capacity of older adults; others may work in medical settings on rehabilitation issues.
Geropsychologists often find themselves juggling older adults' biological, economic and family and social needs, says Hinrichsen, the chair of APA's Committee on Aging.
As such, geropsychologists often work with physicians, nurses, physical therapists and other health professionals, adds Antoinette Zeiss, PhD, assistant chief and director of training of psychology services at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System who began her geropsychology career 21 years ago.
While no salary data are available specifically for geropsychologists, they can expect to make comparable amounts to other psychologists in the setting in which they work. Average salaries are $38,733 for working as an assistant psychology professor in a four-year college; $56,714 in a government research organization; $59,000 in a private research organization; and $70,200 for working in a VA hospital with 5 to 9 years of experience, according to APA's 2001 salary data.
How to Get There:
Some doctoral programs may offer a specialty or track in geropsychology, but, for the most part, "There's a lot of flexibility in the path you can take to become a geropsychologist," Smith says.
Smith, for example, didn't begin working with older adults until the middle of her doctoral counseling psychology training. Her practicum experience at the VA in Columbus, Ohio, sparked her interest in working with older adults and led her to complete an internship and postdoc at VAs in Tucson, Ariz., and Milwaukee, where she is today.
If your program does not offer a geropsychology track, Smith recommends taking classes in adult development and aging and getting experience in cognitive and neuropsychological assessment, or seeking out cross-disciplinary degree certificates in geriatrics that may be offered outside your psychology program.
In 2004, the University of Colorado began the first applied doctoral program solely devoted to geropsychology. And geropsychology tracks and classes are increasing, thanks in part to grants awarded last fall by the federal Bureau of Health Professions aimed at increasing the number of geropsychologists. Last year, seven psychology programs were awarded Graduate Psychology Education grants (for a list of recipients, visit www.apa.org/monitor/jan04/winners.html). For a list of geropsychology internships and postdocs, visit www.geropsych.org/students.html.
Zeiss also recommends joining organizations--such as the Gerontological Society of America, Section II (Clinical Geropsychology) of APA's Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology), or Div. 20 (Adult Development and Aging)--to network with geropsychologists and stay up-to-date on current issues affecting the field.
Pros and Cons:
While some students may find the realities of aging and physical decline "deeply moving," others may find the experience "deeply distressing," Hinrichsen notes. Geropsychologists may deal with the death of clients or work with clients who have physical ailments or diminished capacity.
Another potential caveat: Geropsychologists in a private practice may face problems getting Medicare reimbursement for their services. While Medicare now reimburses psychologists for diagnosing dementia, it still doesn't reimburse for hospice care and provides below-average reimbursement for other services, Zeiss says. However, VAs do not have this problem because they don't rely on Medicare funding.
Nevertheless, Hinrichsen believes his ability to explore a gamut of diverse aging issues while helping older adults make positive changes in their lives far outweighs any cons.
"When I was choosing a career in college, I decided to become a psychologist because I wanted a career that was intellectually stimulating and personally meaningful," Hinrichsen says. "I found that geropsychology has been very much that kind of career."