By David Becker
Aging is a fundamental part of being human. Although we all wish to live long and prosper—as the saying goes—and to continue enjoying the good things in life, the realities of aging can be daunting. Our bodies and minds weaken as the years wear on, rendering us more susceptible to medical problems like Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. We also find ourselves coming to terms with mortality as our loved ones and the cultural icons of our youth pass away.
Geropsychologists aim to understand the aging process as it relates to mental health. Practitioners in this area help older adults negotiate these challenges and improve their mental health and overall well-being.
Even though the aging process has been a subject of contemplation throughout human history, geropsychology itself is fairly new. Belgian scholar Adolphe Quetelet is credited as the first to write about aging from a psychological perspective in his 1835 treatise Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés (which translates to English as On Man and the Development of His Faculties; Birren, 1961). However, geropsychology didn’t really start to flourish until after World War II. This rise was marked by the founding of both the Gerontological Society of America and APA’s Division on Adult Development and Aging in 1945. Only just recently, in 2010, did APA officially recognize geropsychology as a specialty area of practice. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) also began granting board certification in geropsychology in December 2014.
Some have suggested that the slow emergence of this field may have to do with pseudoscientific myths about aging that persist in the public consciousness, accompanied by the fact that geropsychology brings us face-to-face with uncomfortable realities that we might otherwise prefer to avoid thinking about (Birren & Schroots, 2000).
The most significant reason for geropsychology’s recent emergence is undoubtedly the rising population of older adults. According a December 2015 report by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), there are currently 46 million adults age 65 or older living in the U.S., which is more than a twofold increase from 1960 when there were less than 20 million adults that age. The PRB expects this growth trend to continue in the next 50 years, estimating that this figure will more than double to 98 million in 2060. This increase in the 65+ population means that mental health practitioners will be seeing more and more older clients in the coming years.
Although adults in their 60s and 70s are generally quite healthy thanks to modern medicine, clinical psychologist Patricia Areán (2015) notes that older adults still face a number of unique health issues that require specialized care and that most mental health practitioners lack the knowledge and expertise to adequately address these needs. Clinicians working with older adults are also more likely to encounter a number of unique ethical dilemmas (Bush, Allen, & Molinari, 2017). When treating clients with dementia who have limited decision-making capacities, for instance, it can be challenging to balance the need to respect their autonomy with the need to assure their welfare, especially when outside parties like family members and other healthcare professionals are involved.
The recent emergence of geropsychology, therefore, is a matter of necessity that has also been accompanied many new advances in the last decade. One of the most noteworthy contributions is the Pikes Peak Model for Training in Professional Geropsychology, which has helped define the attitudes, the knowledge, and the skills that are necessary to become a competent geropsychologist (Karel, Molinari, Emery-Tiburcio, & Knight, 2015). APA also recently revised its Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Older Adults in 2014. With this rapid expansion of clinical knowledge, mental health practitioners will be well-prepared to meet the special needs of the growing population of older adults.
Areán, P. A. (2015). Treatment of late-life depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance abuse. https://doi.org/10.1037/14524-000
Birren, J. E. (1961). A brief history of the psychology of aging. The Gerontologist, 1, 69–77. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/1.2.69
Birren, J. E., & Schroots, J. J. F. (Eds.). (2000). A history of geropsychology in autobiography. https://doi.org/10.1037/10367-000
Bush, S. S., Allen, R. S., & Molinari, V. A. (2017). Ethical practice in geropsychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000010-000
Karel, M. J., Molinari, V., Emery-Tiburcio, E. E., & Knight, B. G. (2015). Pikes Peak conference and competency-based training in professional geropsychology. In P. A. Lichtenberg, B. T. Mast, B. D. Carpenter, & J. L. Wetherell (Eds.), APA handbook of clinical geropsychology: Vol. 1. History and status of the field and perspectives on aging (pp. 19–43). https://doi.org/10.1037/14458-003