What Is a Geriatric Certified Specialist?

Physical Therapist for Older People

If you are an older person who is experiencing difficulty moving around due to surgery, illness, or an injury, you may benefit from working with a physical therapist (PT) who is a geriatric certified specialist. A geriatric specialist is a PT who has proven to be an expert in assessing and managing conditions affecting older persons. Working with this type of specialist can ensure you are rehabbing with an expert who understands the specific needs of people who are in the geriatric population.

Many older people face problems and limitations with mobility that are unique. Problems with balance, strength, incontinence, and memory may have a profound effect on your overall rehab after an injury, and a geriatric specialist understands how these things may affect your progress in therapy.

Surgeon With Digital Tablet Visiting Senior Male Patient In Hospital Bed In Geriatric Unit
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Neurological and orthopedic problems are also common in older people. Neurological conditions common in older people, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, may affect the way you move and react to your environment. Common orthopedic problems, like joint replacement or spinal compression fracture, affect older people differently than younger people. A geriatric physical therapist may be a good choice to help you regain and maintain mobility.

But how does a PT become a geriatric certified specialist, and what can you expect when visiting a PT who is a geriatric specialist?

Concentrations

Physical therapists who are geriatric certified specialists treat older people who have various diagnoses. These may include, but are not limited to:

Generally speaking, a geriatric certified specialist evaluates and treats older individuals and is an expert in understanding the specific needs of older people.

Procedural Expertise

A geriatric certified specialist is an excellent choice of physical therapist to work with if you are an older person with any functional limitation. They can perform assessments and treatments that are specific to older people.

Common assessments performed for older individuals may include:

  • Gait analysis: Gait refers to the way you walk. Older people exhibit specific gait characteristics, like a widened base of support or shortened stride length, that a geriatric specialist will be able to quickly recognize (and treat).
  • Transfer ability: Transferring is moving from one position or surface to another. A geriatric certified specialist understands how older people transfer from one chair to another or from sitting to standing, and they can intervene properly to help you regain optimal transfer ability.
  • Bed mobility: This refers to your ability to roll, scoot, and move around in bed.
  • Balance and falls assessment: Falls are a common problem in older people, and a geriatric specialist can assess your falls risk and provide interventions that limit your risk.
  • Activity modification specific to older individuals: Sometimes cognitive and physical impairments may be present in older people, requiring you to modify your lifestyle and functional mobility. A geriatric specialist can help you modify activity while still maintaining optimal mobility.

What Makes a GCS Different?

While any physical therapist can evaluate and treat a geriatric individual, those who are recognized as geriatric specialists have advanced knowledge and techniques available to help them improve outcomes for people in that population.

Not every older adult requires a geriatric certified specialist for physical therapy. If you are an active person with little or no cognitive impairments, then working with any physical therapist after an injury or illness may be adequate for you. But if you are experiencing physical or cognitive impairments common in the geriatric community, then working with a specialist can help you have the best physical therapy experience possible.

Training and Certification

How does a PT become a geriatric certified specialist? Since 1985, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has recognized therapists who are specialists in their chosen area of practice. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) is the governing body that oversees therapist specialist certification in 10 practice areas, and there is a specific process to becoming a geriatric certified specialist.

There are two possible routes to becoming a geriatric certified specialist, and PTs must complete at least one to earn the right to sit for the national examination for specialists in geriatrics. These routes include:

  • Portfolio completion: The ABPTS has outlined a portfolio for therapists who wish to become geriatric certified specialists. Included in the portfolio is proof that the PT has worked at least 2,000 hours with patients in the geriatric population. At least 500 of those hours must have occurred within the past three years. Other items included in the portfolio may include presentations at national conferences, attendance of continuing education classes, or authorship of professional papers or publications.
  • Post-professional residency: To become a geriatric specialist, your PT may choose to attend a clinical residency offered by the APTA. These residencies include on-site direct patient care in an approved facility and under the guidance of a current certified geriatric specialist.
  • National examination: Once a pre-specialist option has been completed, the candidate may choose to sit for the national examination for their chosen specialty. The PT must be currently licensed to practice in the United States.

If the candidate passes the specialist examination, they will be granted the certification in geriatric specialty. The certification is good for 10 years.

Physical therapists who are certified in geriatrics have the special letters of "GCS" after their names as part of their credentials.

Appointment Tips

If you are an older individual experiencing pain or movement loss, you may benefit from working with a geriatric certified specialist. Finding one is easy; the APTA has a web page that can help you locate a specialist PT near you.

When making your appointment, be sure to understand what your PT needs to properly evaluate and treat you. Things to consider may include:

  • Wear comfortable clothing.
  • Ensure your PT accepts your specific health insurance.
  • Be prepared to talk about your past medical history.
  • Bring a current medication list.

During your first appointment, your PT will ask you questions about your condition and your past medical history. They may also ask about your current and prior level of function. An evaluation and assessment will be done, so make sure you wear clothing that allows you to move around easily. If you use a cane or a walker, bring that along as well.

A Word From Verywell

A geriatric certified specialist is a PT who is an expert in assessing and treating older individuals. This type of PT has extensive knowledge of the specific problems and conditions that may affect geriatric individuals. Working with a geriatric certified specialist can help you quickly and safely return to your optimum level of function after injury or illness if you are an older person.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Avin KG, Hanke TA, Kirk-Sanchez N, et al. Management of falls in community-dwelling older adults: clinical guidance statement from the academy of geriatric physical therapy of the american physical therapy associationPhysical Therapy. 2015;95(6):815-834. doi:10.2522/ptj.20140415

  2. Liu-Ambrose T, Davis JC, Best JR, et al. Effect of a home-based exercise program on subsequent falls among community-dwelling high-risk older adults after a fall: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2019;321(21):2092. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5795

  3. American Physical Therapy Association. APTA specialists certification candidate guide. Updated May 13, 2021.

  4. American Physical Therapy Association. Geriatric professional development portfolio.