Geriatric residences have become a very important institutional space to meet some care needs during aging. Psychology has played an important role in this space, as it is a science with very diverse approaches and applications.

In this article we will briefly explain what is the role of psychology in aging and what are some of the main functions that a psychologist can have within a nursing home .

The role of psychology in aging

One of the areas of professional development in psychology is the aging process. This is so because the knowledge that psychology generates can help to build important tools to enhance the quality of life of older adults , as well as to understand the processes of change as it has done in other life cycles, and to intervene both with the older adult and in the creation of models and policies of care.

Old age had been reserved for medicine because it was understood to be based on health problems. Thus, interventions were limited to the prevention and eradication of diseases associated with aging. However, and given that old age is not a health problem, but rather a vidal stage that has specific needs, psychology has also generated some tools to satisfy them.

There is even a specialty called gerontopsychology, which is a subbranch of clinical psychology, focused precisely on the study of this vital process and on the development of psychological intervention strategies.

5 functions of the psychologist in a nursing home

Among the strategies that have been created to address the needs of the elderly, intervention in institutions (nursing homes) has been very relevant.

As is the case in much of psychology , this intervention depends very much on the capacity of the professional to empathise with the needs of others , as well as on the theoretical knowledge he or she has acquired that can help to detect and satisfy these needs. Generally, the ultimate goal of the intervention is to ensure the quality of life of people and to strengthen active aging.

Rodríguez, Valderrama and Molina (2010) propose a series of areas and strategies of intervention for the institutionalized elderly, in which the role of the psychologist can be fundamental.

Taking into consideration this proposal, we developed five of the functions that a psychologist has within a residence : to generate support groups, to offer strategies to confront possible challenges, to orient on the meaning of old age (both to the institution and to the family), to prevent or treat symptoms of depression, and to accompany the approach to death.

1. Generate support groups

The psychologist can act as a facilitator and encourage the creation of support networks among older adults. Doing this is important because it increases the feeling of accompaniment and recognition by others , which in turn, can prevent depressive symptoms. For this, psychology has generated different strategies, which should be adapted to the situation of each residence and each group of adults.

2. Provide coping strategies for possible challenges

The psychologist can also make individual interventions aimed at providing emotional accompaniment. These interventions can have different objectives, for example, developing assertive communication, working on the control of emotions, following up on a grieving process, promoting autonomy and self-esteem, etc. In any case it is important to accompany according to the need detected in each person , and to avoid transmitting the idea that old age is a problem or a challenge in itself.

3. Provide guidance on the meaning of old age to the institution and the family

Intervention during aging is not limited to the adult, it is necessary to give orientation and accompaniment to the institution or the relatives. This is because in some cases, old age is understood as a problem or as a disability, which encourages passivity and the poor development of the person’s autonomy.

Since 1991 the UN has identified five efforts to ensure a good quality of life during ageing : Dignity, Independence, Self-fulfilment, Participation and Care; and to promote them is also the responsibility of psychology professionals.

4. Prevent or treat symptoms of depression or other disorders

As with other life stages, the aging process can be difficult for some people. Old age can create vulnerability to depressive symptoms if, among other things, the adult environment has not been able to favour or satisfy some filiation needs. Here the role of the psychologist is important because it can both promote self-esteem in individual or group interventions , and reduce the situation of vulnerability by intervening in the environment (in the residence, in the family, in the community).

5. Accompanying the approach to death

For some people, the approach to death can be a major problem. As long as old age is assumed to be the stage before the end of life, a process of suffering and mourning can be generated . The psychologist also has the function of accompanying this process within the geriatric institution. To do so, there are many and very different tools, which depend to a great extent on the approach that the professional adopts and his/her own emotional capacity to face or accompany the death.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rodríguez, A., Valderrama, L. and Molina, J. (2010). Psychological intervention in older adults. Psychology from the Caribbean. Universidad del Norte, 25: 246-258.
  • Santamaria, J.L. (S/A). The psychologist in the aging process. Old age and quality of life. Recovered June 5, 2018. Available atólogo%20en%20el%20Envejecimiento.pdf.