Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional


Overview of Geriatric Care


Debra Bakerjian

, PhD, APRN, Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, UC Davis

Last full review/revision Jul 2020| Content last modified Jul 2020
Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version

Every 4 years, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) updates its strategic plan and defines its mission and goals. The current HHS strategic plan (2018-2022) includes the following 5 strategic goals (1):

  • Strategic goal 1: Reform, strengthen, and modernize the nation's health care system

  • Strategic goal 2: Protect the health of Americans where they live, learn, work, and play

  • Strategic goal 3: Strengthen the economic and social well-being of Americans across the lifespan

  • Strategic goal 4: Foster sound, sustained advances in the sciences

  • Strategic goal 5: Promote effective and efficient management and stewardship

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) then builds their strategic goals that set their quality agenda for the next 5 to 10 years. The current CMS quality strategy consists of 3 goals (better care, healthy people and communities, and smarter spending). CMS established the following 6 priorities to improve the quality of care delivered in the US health care system (2):

  • Make care safer

  • Strengthen person and family engagement

  • Promote effective communication and coordination of care

  • Promote effective prevention and treatment

  • Work with communities to promote best practices of healthy living

  • Make care affordable

Practitioners who provide care to older adults should be aware of these goals and incorporate them into their approach to geriatric care. The overarching goal is to improve the patient experience and provide high quality and safe care at a lower cost. Engaging with patients and families to become partners in care leads to more meaningful person-centered care and more effective prevention and treatment plans with better outcomes. Practitioners need to coordinate care among patients' various health care settings and communicate effectively with other practitioners, as well as patients and their families. Additionally, geriatric practitioners need to work with communities to create and implement best practices that incorporate prevention strategies with a goal of keeping patients and populations healthier. Lastly, health care professionals and staff, academics, and researchers must work with policy-makers to make health care more affordable.

Because older adults tend to have multiple chronic disorders and may also have cognitive, social, or functional problems, they have higher health care needs and use a disproportionately large amount of health care resources.

  • People ≥ 65 years have the highest rate of inpatient hospital stays, more than 2.5 times higher than those 45 to 64 years (3).

  • Medicare has steadily increased its share of cost for non-maternal and non-neonatal inpatient stays to 25.1% for people 45 to 64 years and 97% for people 65 years and older (3).

  • People 65 years and older have the greatest per capita use of emergency departments (538.3 visits per 1,000 population) (4).

  • Half of traditional Medicare beneficiaries 65 years or older spent 14% or more of their total income on out-of-pocket health care costs, with an even greater burden for those over 85 years (5).

  • 88% of older adults take at least one prescription drug and 36% take 5 or more prescription drugs (6).

Because of their multiple chronic illnesses, older adults are likely to see several health care practitioners and to move from one health care setting to another. Providing consistent, integrated care across specific care settings, sometimes called continuity of care, is thus particularly important for older patients. Communication among primary care physicians, specialists, other health care practitioners, and patients and their family members, particularly when patients are transferred between settings, is critical to ensuring that patients receive appropriate care in all settings. Electronic health records may help facilitate communication.


Health care settings

Care may be delivered in the following settings:

  • Physician's office: The most common reasons for visits are routine diagnosis and management of acute and chronic problems, health promotion and disease prevention, and presurgical or postsurgical evaluation. Medicare pays for a yearly wellness visit for older adults enrolled in Medicare Part B for longer than 12 months (see Medicare Coverage for limits and exceptions). The annual visit focuses on identifying areas of risk, prevention of disease and disability, screening for cognitive impairment, and creating a prevention plan.

  • Patient’s home: Home care is most commonly used after hospital discharge, but hospitalization is not a prerequisite. Also, a small but growing number of health care practitioners deliver care for acute and chronic problems and sometimes end-of-life care in a patient's home. One model called Independence at Home provides care to people who have significant functional limitations and multiple chronic illnesses. Care is provided by teams consisting of physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and social workers. This model has shown significant savings in the Medicare program and has high patient and provider satisfaction.

  • Long-term care facilities: These facilities include assisted-living facilities, board-and-care facilities, skilled nursing facilities, and life-care communities. Whether patients require care in a long-term care facility depends partly on the patient’s wishes and needs and on the family’s ability to meet the patient’s needs. Because of the trend toward shorter hospital stays, some long-term care facilities are now also providing post-acute care (eg, rehabilitation and high-level skilled nursing services) previously done during hospitalization.

  • Day care facilities: These facilities provide medical, rehabilitative, cognitive, and social services several hours a day for several days a week.

  • Hospitals: Only seriously ill older patients should be hospitalized. Hospitalization itself poses risks to older patients because of confinement, immobility, diagnostic testing, and treatments. Some hospitals have developed programs that provide hospital-level services in the home environment. This is particularly useful for patients that require long-term therapies that need to be administered by licensed nurses and may reduce risk of hospital-acquired conditions, such as delirium and some infections.

  • Long-term care hospitals: These facilities provide extended hospital-level recovery and rehabilitative care to patients with severe injuries and clinically complex conditions (eg, severe stroke, severe trauma, multiple acute and chronic problems). These facilities are for patients who are expected to improve and return home but who need a longer period of time.

  • Hospice: Hospices provide care for the dying. The goal is to alleviate symptoms and keep people comfortable rather than to cure a disorder. Hospice care can be provided in the home, a nursing home, or an inpatient facility.

In general, the lowest, least restrictive level of care suitable to a patient’s needs should be used. This approach conserves financial resources and helps preserve the patient’s independence and functioning.

Geriatric Interdisciplinary Teams

Geriatric interdisciplinary teams consist of practitioners from different disciplines who provide coordinated, integrated care with collectively set goals and shared resources and responsibilities.

Not all older patients need a formal geriatric interdisciplinary team. However, if patients have complex medical, psychologic, and social needs, such teams are more effective in assessing patient needs and creating an effective care plan than are practitioners working alone. If interdisciplinary care is not available, an alternative is management by a geriatrician or geriatric nurse practitioner or a primary care physician or nurse practitioner or physician assistant with experience and interest in geriatric medicine.

Interdisciplinary teams aim to ensure the following:

  • That patients move safely and easily from one care setting to another and from one practitioner to another

  • That the most qualified practitioner provides care for each problem

  • That care is not duplicated

  • That care is comprehensive

To create, monitor, or revise the care plan, interdisciplinary teams must communicate openly, freely, and regularly. Core team members must collaborate, with trust and respect for the contributions of others, and coordinate the care plan (eg, by delegating, sharing accountability, jointly implementing it). Team members may work together at the same site, making communication informal and expeditious. However, with the increased use of technology (ie, cell phones, computers, internet, telehealth), it is not unusual for team members to work at different sites and use various technologies to enhance communication.

A team typically includes physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, social workers, psychologists, and sometimes a dentist, dietitian, physical and occupational therapists, an ethicist, or a palliative care or hospice physician. Team members should have knowledge of geriatric medicine, familiarity with the patient, dedication to the team process, and good communication skills.

To function effectively, teams need a formal structure. Teams should develop a shared vision of care, identify patient-centered objectives and set deadlines for reaching their goals, have regular meetings (to discuss team structure, process, and communication), and continuously monitor their progress (using quality improvement measures). In general, team leadership should rotate, depending on the needs of the patient; the key provider of care reports on the patient’s progress. For example, if the main concern is the patient’s medical condition, a physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant leads the meeting and introduces the team to the patient and family members. The physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant often work together and determine what medical conditions a patient has, informs the team (including differential diagnoses), and explains how these conditions affect care.

The team’s input is incorporated into medical orders. The physician or one of the provider team members must write medical orders agreed on through the team process and discusses team decisions with the patient, family members, and caregivers. Alternatively, if the main concern is related to nursing care, such as wound care, then the nurse should lead the team discussion.

If a formally structured interdisciplinary team is not available or practical, a virtual team can be used. Such teams are usually led by the primary care physician but can be organized and managed by an advanced practice nurse or physician assistant, a care coordinator, or a case manager. The virtual team uses information technologies (eg, handheld devices, email, video conferencing, teleconferencing) to communicate and collaborate with team members in the community or within a health care system.

Patient and caregiver participation

Recent evidence has pointed to the importance of providing person-centered care, which means that providers are highly focused on patient preferences, needs, and values. The key principles of patient-centered care include respect for patient preferences; coordinating care, providing information and education to patient and families, involving family and friends, and providing both physical comfort and emotional support. Practitioner team members must treat patients and caregivers as active members of the team—eg, in the following ways:

  • Patients and caregivers should be included in team meetings when appropriate.

  • Patients should be asked about their preferences and goals of care and to take a lead in helping the team set goals (eg, advance directives, end-of-life care, level of pain).

  • Patients and caregivers should be included in discussions of drug treatment, rehabilitation, dietary plans, and other therapies, and these treatments and plans should align with patient preferences.

  • Practitioner teams should respect the patients' and caregivers' ideas and preferences; (eg, if patients will not take a particular drug or change certain dietary habits, care can be modified accordingly).

Patients and practitioners must communicate honestly to prevent patients from suppressing an opinion and agreeing to every suggestion. Cognitively impaired patients should be included in decision making provided that practitioners adjust their communication to a level that patients can understand. Capacity to make health care decisions is specific to each particular decision; patients who are not capable of making complex decisions may still be able to decide less complicated issues.

Caregivers, including family members, can help by identifying realistic and unrealistic expectations based on the patient’s habits and lifestyle. Caregivers should also indicate what kind of support they can provide.

Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Professionals also read

Also of Interest