Geriatric, or gerontological, counselors help individuals and families with issues related to the aging process. Areas of concern include everything from the retirement transition clear through to the end of life. One of the central issues that the elderly must cope with is loss. Most people get their first experience with death as children. However, people deal with death much more frequently in their senior years. Particularly difficult are the losses of spouse and lifelong friends.
Other losses are physical: impairments in hearing, vision, or mobility and worsening of overall health. If they live long enough, many individuals also deal with the loss of independence and, to some degree, dignity.
Things you should know about geriatric counselors...
Of course, the elderly also face issues that are not directly related to the aging process. Geriatric counselors may also need to support individuals who have had lifelong struggles with mental illnesses; care may become more complex after patients enter assisted living or nursing home settings --even if their psychiatric condition does not worsen. Working as a gerontological counselor entails collaborating with other members of a geriatric care team.
Geriatric counselors have a specialized body of knowledge. They must know, for example, how to differentiate grief from depression and how to differentiate normal cognitive changes from dementia.
Becoming a Geriatric Counselor
Professional counseling is a master's level profession. If it's your calling, you can begin by getting a bachelors degree in counseling or psychology, or in a related field like social work. Your degree and license will give you the foundation you need to work with individuals across the lifespan and the prerequisites needed to apply to a masters program. You can pursue additional coursework to hone your skills as a gerontological counselor. Learn more about graduate level counseling programs.
If you know prior to graduate school that this is the path you want to take, you may opt for a program that offers gerontological counseling as a specialty. You will still be expected to take all the courses required for professional licensing in your state. However, your program will include a few electives like mental health counseling and assessment of older adults Your program won't necessarily be longer. Many states now require 60 units of graduate coursework, but they often allow some flexibility within this framework.
Another option, if you already have a license in a related field, is to pursue a graduate certificate in gerontological counseling. Your coursework may include offerings like psychopathology and aging and working as part of a geriatric care team. You may also get to choose electives like Alzheimer’s care.
Continuing education is another viable option. Most states require continuing education for license renewal – and allow counselors to choose from an almost unlimited set of offerings, including university courses, internet courses, and traditional CEUs. Among the options are health assessment of older adults, depression in older adults, and clinical neuropathology.
Career Outlook and Salary
Mental health counselors earned an average $42,590 in May 2011 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The counseling field as a whole is growing, with the BLS predicting 37% growth between 2010 and 2020.
The number of individuals 65 and over is on the rise, and some experts believe that the next generation of seniors – Baby Boomers – will be more receptive to counseling than older generations have been. The president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging (AADA) is quoted in Counseling Today as saying that there aren’t enough counselors with training in gerontology.
Of course cost is an issue in determining where seniors will turn for their mental health needs. Counselors? Psychologists? Psychiatric nurse practitioners? Some insurance companies prefer counselors over other mental health providers because of cost effectiveness. Medicare is another matter. There is currently a bill to allow for Medicare coverage of professional counseling – something the American Counseling Association is urging members to push for.