Understanding medical and mental health care systems is like learning a new language. It can all seem unfamiliar and new.

Here’s an overview of licensed mental health professionals who specialize with older adults so that you can identify the mental health professional to start with.

Identify the professional that is right for you

Therapist

“Therapist” is a broad term to identify licensed mental health professionals trained to assess, treat, and manage mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance use, etc. They include psychologists, social workers, licensed professional counselors, and licensed marriage and family therapists. The therapists in our directory specialize with older adults.

Therapists commonly help older adults and their families with:

  • Adjustment to a life altering or chronic medical conditions (cancer, Parkinson’s disease, dementia disorders)
  • Family disagreements around care needs, caregiving
  • Common mental health conditions: Depression, anxiety, sleep problems, substance use
  • Severe mental illness: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia
  • Dementia caregiving, including how to manage challenging dementia behaviors without medications
  • End of life, grief and bereavement
  • Some therapists (like Psychologists) may help to conduct capacity evaluations to determine if a person is able to manage finances, live independently, make medical decisions, etc.

Length of Sessions

Individual therapy sessions are typically 45-60 minutes

Family therapy sessions may range from 45-75 minutes

Frequency of Sessions

Individual therapy sessions may range from once a week, once every 2 weeks, to once a month.

Family therapy sessions may range from once a week to once a month.

Geropsychiatrist

Geriatric psychiatrists (also called Geropsychiatrists) are medical doctors (i.e., physicians) who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues that occur more commonly in older adults, such as dementia, depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc. They prescribe medications to help manage mental health conditions, but may or may not provide talk therapy.

Geropsychiatrists commonly help older adults and their families with:

  • Common mental health conditions: Depression, anxiety, sleep problems, substance use
  • Severe mental illness: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.
  • Dementia with hallucinations, delusions, and challenging behaviors.
  • Mental health challenges caused by side effects of medications, changes in brain functioning or the effects of a physical disease or medical condition.
  • Conducting capacity evaluations to determine if a person is able to manage finances, live independently, make medical decisions, etc.

Length of Sessions

Psychiatry visits for medication management are typically 30 minutes

Frequency of Sessions

Range from once every month to once every couple of months

Neuropsychologist

A neuropsychologist is specialized in assessing and diagnosing brain disorders, like dementia (specifically what type of dementia a person has- Alzheimer’s Disease or Vascular dementia, for example). They help to identify what may be causing the memory or mental health changes in older adults. For example: they help to identify if symptoms are being caused by depression, anxiety, dementia, or all of the above. They focus on assessment, diagnosis, and making recommendations. They don’t typically provide ongoing mental health treatment.

Neuropsychologists commonly help older adults and their families with:

  • Differential diagnosis (e.g., to determine whether mental health and memory changes are related to movement disorders like Parkinson’s Disease, depression, another brain disease like dementia, what type of dementia a person has, etc.)
  • Identifying strengths and challenges in the brain following a major medical event like a stroke.
  • Providing a baseline for your brain’s functioning. This can be useful to see how the older adult’s brain may change over time (for example, in 2021, Francesca had a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment and in 2023, following a Neuropsychological assessment she had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease)
  • Conducting capacity evaluations to determine if a person is able to manage finances, live independently, make medical decisions, etc.

Length of Sessions

Neuropsychologists typically meet with older adults for comprehensive assessments that can last 2-8 hours over a couple of meetings

Frequency of Sessions

You will likely meet with a neuropsychologist for assessment sessions and a feedback session where they will share the results of your assessment and recommendations. This may take a few weeks. They may want to see you back in 1-2 years to conduct another round of assessments to identify any changes in brain health.

Start with one professional

It’s common for therapists, psychiatrists, and neuropsychologists to collaborate and work together in caring for older adults and their families. In fact when it comes to the mental health care of older adults, a team of different professionals is considered the gold standard of care.

As you get started, however, it can be helpful to start with one professional and talk with your mental health professional about whether and when additional mental health care services may be helpful.

Why is it important to work with mental health professionals who specialize with older adults?

Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental health conditions among older adults and are highly treatable. These conditions, however, often go undetected and untreated because of the false belief that these conditions are normal in older adulthood when they are not.

Similarly, there’s a false belief that dementia is normal as we age- Dementia is NOT a normal part of aging. There are many benefits of early diagnosis of dementia. Yet misunderstandings about dementia have many families and professionals postpone diagnosis and care, contributing to risk and hardship.

With misinformation, biases, and stereotypes about older adults common among mental health and health providers alike, it’s important that mental health professionals working with older adults have a specialty in working with older adults and an understanding of:

  • What is typical with aging, what is not typical with aging
  • How stigma and ageism affects the physical and mental health of older adults
  • Effective mental health care for older adults and their families
  • The importance of mental health management of dementia
  • Helping people with dementia to maintain health, wellness, and a sense of purpose
  • Managing the complex medical, pharmacological, mental health, and family needs of older adults
  • Community resources available to older adults and their families.