What is Geriatric Physical Therapy, and why might it be the career path for you?

Put simply, “geriatric” physical therapists focus their care on older adult patients and clients. Typically, this means people 60 years and older, but the definition varies from age 50 (AARP age) to 65 (Medicare age). There is no upper limit for the ages seen—my oldest patient to date was 104 and didn’t retire until 102.

Other physical therapy specialties focus on specific body systems, like cardiovascular/pulmonary, neurologic, and orthopedic. However, geriatrics as a specialty pulls together all body systems as they relate to typical and atypical age-related changes.

Additionally, any conditions a person acquires during their lifetime might “stack up” in the same person as they get older. A unique challenge and opportunity for the geriatric physical therapist is to master a wide variety of information from all body systems and all areas of physical therapy to best treat the needs of older adult patients and clients.

Why specialize in Geriatric Physical Therapy?

My journey to physical therapy in general goes back at least to high school, when I had the opportunity to take several anatomy and physiology classes. Various life events have guided me toward PT school, though along the way I was (and still am) interested in many areas that physical therapy ties together.

My interest in geriatrics goes back to Year 2 of the program.

Orthopedic content was pretty interesting, but neurological rehabilitation content was even more interesting. I wasn’t sure at this point what population would be the most interesting for me to work with. However, the next three clinical rotations were in inpatient, skilled nursing facility, and outpatient settings. I noticed that working with older adults provided a good challenge for me.

Since then, I have grown to appreciate geriatrics as a specialty for even more reasons. I earned board certification in geriatric physical therapy in 2016.

My favorite aspects of working with older adults include…

The life stories they have to tell, and the need to use multiple areas of my knowledge every day. The visible health and happiness benefits that they can gain from simply being more physically active than they have been. There are certainly challenges. Some patients may not make it all the way through PT due to worsening illness or even death. However, even that has given me more appreciation for the life and health God has given me to serve them.

What Options Are Available for Geriatric Physical Therapy?

One of the best parts of geriatric physical therapy is the ability to practice in virtually any setting. Older adults are increasing in numbers in many countries. Most remain living independently in their communities until their 70s or 80s. If you like sports, so do many older adults. Even Senior Olympians who are just as competitive as their younger counterparts! If you prefer working with people in their own living environments, home care is a great option. Just about the only setting where you wouldn’t be likely to work with older adults would be exclusively pediatric clinics.

Besides clinics, hospitals, homes, and nursing homes, some geriatric physical therapists go less-traditional routes. These can include private practice, telehealth, consulting, and wellness. No matter where the PT practices, there are always older adults to serve and who can improve with therapy.

Okay, I’m Interested. What Do I Do?

A great place to start is right now, during DPT coursework. Pay attention to the “aging” aspects of the material you are learning. Aging affects every body system. On clinical rotations, note how working with older adults is similar to and different from working with younger adults. This will give you a more accurate view of what it’s like to work with older adults as a specialty.

After graduation, many continuing education and mentorship opportunities exist for PTs interested in geriatrics. Continuing education courses address varied issues related to health and the aging process, including specific diagnoses like vestibular problems. If you want to fast-track your expertise in working with older adults, consider also a geriatrics residency program. A unique benefit graduates appreciate the most about residency is the mentorship they receive. Particularly the mentorship relating to how they interact and clinically-reason with specific, complex patients. Currently, there are less than 20 geriatrics residencies in the United States. I am working at Concordia to develop one more that will hopefully get started in a few years.

Get to know Dr. Hannah Baker

  • What’s your name/degree/specialty?
    • Dr. Hannah Baker, PT, DPT, PhD, Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Geriatrics
  • How long have you been teaching at Concordia?
    • As a proud CUW DPT grad myself, I have been teaching full-time at Concordia for 2 years. I also had the opportunity to be a lab assistant and guest lecturer for 5 years before that.
  • Which classes do you teach?
    • A little bit of everything, including a pediatrics-geriatrics elective, electrotherapy/wound care, neuroscience, gait analysis, and psychosocial aspects of health care.
  • How did you decide to be a PT?
    • I’ve always been fascinated by how the human body works according to its design. My dad broke his leg when I was a freshman in college. Seeing his rehab process and the hiccups made me want to do better. However, I didn’t make the final decision until my senior year. The “light at the end of the tunnel” and the support of the faculty were a great help!
  • Favorite areas of research?
    • Currently, I am working on projects related to quality/process improvement and detecting fall risk early on. I’m also studying the effects of an annual PT “physical.”
  • What’s your favorite part of being a CUW faculty? The family atmosphere has allowed me to grow personally and professionally.
  • What lessons/courses/research projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
    • Besides my regular courses, I am particularly excited about the courses I’m developing for our geriatrics residency.
  • What do you do in your free time?
    • Play or walk with my son John (1 ½), read everything I can, and watch Star Trek with my husband.
  • What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a PT?
    • Count the cost (monetary, psychological, time…) and get used to practicing things that aren’t necessarily the most interesting. That skill and mindset will set you ahead of your peers!

Feeling Inspired?

If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a physical therapist, explore a day in the life of a physical therapy student. Feel free to check out our website.