Geriatric physical therapy focuses on older adults experiencing the physical effects of aging. This type of specialized physical therapy addresses many of the conditions and diseases that affect older Americans, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Balance disorders
- Hip and joint replacements
Geriatric physical therapist assistants, under the supervision and direction of physical therapists, develop and implement individualized geriatric programs aimed at helping restore/achieve mobility, reduce pain, and increase fitness. Many times, this means helping seniors master the essential activities of daily living to their highest potential. Physical therapist assistants help patients achieve self-sufficiency and adapt to their physical and social environment.
Physical therapist assistants evaluate and treat senior patients with a variety of cardiopulmonary, musculoskeletal, neurological, and skin impairments through initial evaluations and goal-oriented treatment plans.
Geriatric physical therapy is a means by which older adults of all physical abilities can build confidence, become or remain active, and achieve/improve balance, mobility, and strength.
For many seniors, geriatric physical therapy allows them to recover from an illness or surgery, while for others it allows them to cope with a chronic disease, such as osteoporosis or arthritis. Still others benefit from geriatric physical therapy because it allows them to maintain their mobility and independence. Geriatric physical therapy may also help older adults build strength and balance so as to avoid falls, a major problem in this population that often causes hip fractures and other injuries.
PTAs Specializing in Geriatrics: Education, Training, and Certification Options
All physical therapist assistant programs that have been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) cover physical therapist assisting in geriatrics. To further specialize, students of PTA programs can select geriatric specialty electives as a way to customize the program to align with the career goal of working with elderly people.
After graduating and going on to earn a state license, physical therapist assistants can also seek employment opportunities with physical therapists that specialize in working with seniors.
Just a few of the settings in which geriatric physical therapists work include:
- Nursing homes/assisted living facilities
- Rehabilitation centers
- Private practice
- Ambulatory care settings
Physical therapist assistants can then pursue a geriatric specialization through the Physical Therapy Association’s PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency Program, a unique program designed to reward physical therapist assistants who have achieved an advanced level of proficiency in the practice. Candidates must meet specific requirements in four categories to achieve this recognition:
- Continuing Education
- Job Performance
- Community Service/Leadership
For example, candidates pursuing a clinical recognition in geriatrics must possess at least 5 years of work experience (at least 2,000 hours), and at least 500 hours in the past year in geriatrics to qualify.
Defining the Role of PTAs in Geriatric Physical Therapy
The Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy details the work of physical therapist assistants in geriatric physical therapy through their publication, The Essential Competencies in the Care of Older Adults at the Completion of the Entry-Level Physical Therapist Assistant Program of Study.
According to the publication, by 2020, physical therapists—and therefore physical therapist assistants—will be the autonomous practitioners of choice for promoting, coaching and facilitating exercise, physical therapy, prevention, and optimization of function within the aging population. Physical therapist assistants working with the geriatric population are expected to serve as evidence-based practitioners that promote:
- Health promotion
The Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy publication defines an optimal relationship between the physical therapist and the physical therapist assistant as including:
- Adequate supervision based on the physical therapist assistant’s expertise and the physical therapist’s knowledge of this expertise
- Administrative policy and legal requirements
- Mutual respect
- Knowledge of the roles of the physical therapist, the physical therapist assistant, and ancillary staff
- A commitment to career development that facilitates the highest quality of and ethical standards for the care of older adults
The Components of a Geriatric Physical Therapy Program
Exercise – Exercise, the most common type of geriatric physical therapy, involves encouraging seniors to partake in physical activities designed to maintain and improve their flexibility, muscle strength, coordination, balance, and physical endurance. Geriatric physical therapy exercise may include a wide array of activities best suited for the unique needs and limitations of older adults, such as:
- Weight lifting
- Aquatic therapy
Manual Therapy – Manual therapy involves the massage and manipulation of the muscles and joints. The goal of manual therapy is to improve circulation and restore mobility due to injury or lack of use. Many times, physical therapist assistants employ manual therapy techniques as a way to reduce pain.
Education – Physical therapy education for geriatrics, as for any population, is important for the success and effectiveness of the program and for the health and well-being of patients. Geriatric physical therapy education may involve teaching seniors everything from how to use assistive devices to how to prevent trip and fall accidents at home. Physical therapist assistants educate seniors in order to foster a greater sense of well-being, and to help them remain independent.