Gerontology and Geriatrics

Gerontology and Geriatrics

What is the difference between geriatrics and gerontology? People often use these terms interchangeably, but gerontology and geriatrics encompass two different career focuses. A broad, multidisciplinary field, gerontology is the study of older adults and aging. Geriatrics is a medical specialization focused on diagnosing, treating, and caring for older adults.

Geriatrics and gerontology both offer lucrative, rewarding career paths that improve life for older adults. A December 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report found strong growth in community-based care jobs, with rapidly increasing demand for careers that serve the elderly.

Geriatric and gerontology nurse practitioners can expect an excellent career outlook. The BLS projects a 45% job growth rate (much faster than average) for nurse practitioners (NPs) between 2019 and 2029.

Keep reading to learn more about the difference between gerontology and geriatrics, along with career and salary opportunities in these fields.

What Is Gerontology?

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that nearly 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older by 2050. Gerontology and geriatrics can help respond to this demographic shift that will impact people at the individual and societal level.

The gerontology field studies older adults and aging. The Gerontological Society of America defines gerontology as “the study of aging processes and individuals across the life course.” Gerontologists research and respond to mental, physical, and social changes due to aging, along with societal changes resulting from an aging population. These professionals apply insights about aging to policy and program design, improving older adults’ lives.

Gerontology includes work from social and behavioral scientists, nurse practitioners and other healthcare workers, social workers, and biologists. People conducting research and education on aging from these and other disciplines are called gerontologists.

What Is Geriatrics?

Geriatrics is a medical specialty that emphasizes treating and caring for elderly people, usually those over age 65. While gerontology looks at the broad issues of an aging population from a multidisciplinary perspective, geriatrics focuses on patient medical care at the individual level. These professionals help their clients achieve the best possible quality of life as they age.

Some people define geriatrics as part of the broader gerontology field. As the U.S. population ages, the demand for skilled geriatricians and other geriatrics healthcare professionals will likely grow.

Geriatric professionals help their patients deal with complex medical problems that happen as people age. Eighty percent of older adults have a chronic health condition, and 68% have at least two, according to the National Council on Aging. Geriatricians, or geriatric doctors, need a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree. Geriatric nurse practitioners need a master’s degree and registered nurse (RN) license.

Career Options in Gerontology

The multidisciplinary field of gerontology offers a variety of careers in the medical, social services, and occupational therapy fields. Gerontologists can advance and earn more money by transitioning into administrative or supervisory positions or by completing more education or certifications.

Salary potential for gerontology careers varies significantly depending on industry, specific career, and education level. On the low end, PayScale reports that home health aides made around $30,000 annually on average as of July 2021. In the middle, gerontological social workers made more than $50,000 a year as of June 2021. Adult-gerontology nurse practitioners earned an average salary of over $90,000 in July 2021.

Job Title Required Education Responsibilities Average Annual Salary
Home Health Aide High school diploma Gerontological home health aides care for older adults in their own homes. They take care of basic tasks like laundry, giving medicines, and helping patients get dressed. $29,900
Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP) Master’s degree A type of advanced practice registered nurse, AGNPs provide healthcare to populations from young adulthood to old age. $90,130
Occupational Therapist Master’s degree in occupational therapy Gerontological occupational therapists use everyday activities as therapy to help older patients with injuries, disabilities, or illnesses. $67,360
Nursing Assistant High school diploma or vocational school Gerontological nursing assistants help patients with basic everyday tasks like bathing, dressing, and taking vital signs. $35,300
Gerontological Social Worker Bachelor’s in social work Gerontological social workers help improve older adults’ overall well-being. These professionals coordinate care, advocate for and provide community resources to older adults. $50,440
Social and Human Services Assistants High school diploma Gerontological social and human services assistants help older clients find community services and benefits. $35,870
Source: BLS; PayScale, July 2021

Career Outlook for Gerontological NPs

Gerontological nurse practitioners, also called geriatric nurse practitioners, can expect a very favorable career outlook, with high salaries and strong demand. PayScale reports that adult-gerontology nurse practitioners earned more than $90,000 a year on average as of July 2021.

The BLS reports that increased demand for healthcare services due to the aging American population will likely lead to a positive career outlook for nurse practitioners.

The BLS projects jobs for NPs to increase by 45%, much faster than average, from 2019-2029. The agency does not calculate separate data for gerontological and geriatric nurse practitioners. However, the BLS reports that increased demand for healthcare services due to the aging American population will likely lead to a positive career outlook for nurse practitioners.

Career Options in Geriatrics

The geriatrics field offers well-paying healthcare career opportunities. These professionals treat and prevent illnesses, injuries, and diseases in older adult patients. Below, we describe some potential career options in geriatrics, including job responsibilities, annual average salary, and required education.

As medical workers with specialized knowledge and skills, geriatrics professionals earn competitive salaries. The average annual salary starts at around $92,000 for geriatric nurse practitioners, exceeding $190,000 for geriatric physicians. These lucrative careers require extensive education and training, mandating a master’s degree and licensure at minimum. Geriatric physicians and certified geriatric pharmacists need doctoral degrees.

Job Title Required Education Responsibilities Average Annual Salary
Geriatric Physician Medical doctor or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree Geriatric doctors, or geriatricians, provide medical treatment for older adults. $190,420
Geriatric Nurse Practitioner Master’s degree Geriatric nurse practitioners provide primary and specialty healthcare to older adults. $92,030
Certified Geriatric Pharmacist Doctor of pharmacy degree Geriatric pharmacists offer expertise on medications and prescriptions for older adults. $123,000
Geriatric Physician Assistant (PA) Master’s degree Geriatric PAs work collaboratively with other healthcare workers to address medical conditions in older adults. $100,120
Source: BLS; PayScale, July 2021

Career Outlook for Geriatric Nurse Practitioners

Geriatric nurse practitioners, also known as gerontology nurse practitioners, face a strong career outlook and make a competitive living.

PayScale reports that geriatric nurse practitioners made an average annual salary of $92,030 as of May 2021, very similar to the reported earnings of gerontology nurse practitioners. Factors that impact the career outlook for geriatric nurse practitioners include location, education level, employer, and experience.

The geriatric nurse practitioner certification was retired years ago and no longer exists, so prospective geriatric nurse practitioners must earn certification as an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner.

Day in the Life of a Geriatric Nurse Practitioner

Geriatric NP vs. Gerontological NP Education Requirements

Although differences exist between the gerontology and geriatrics specialties, geriatric nurse practitioners and gerontology nurse practitioners do the same things, need the same education, and face the same salary and career outlooks. The terms “geriatric nurse practitioner” and “gerontology nurse practitioner” are essentially interchangeable.

Becoming a geriatric or gerontological NP requires high levels of education. The first step in earning AGNP certification is to obtain RN licensure and a bachelor’s degree. Though not a requirement, many students work for years as RNs before seeking their AGNP. Prospective geriatric or gerontological NPs must complete a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited program.

Although differences exist between the gerontology and geriatrics specialties, geriatric nurse practitioners and gerontology nurse practitioners do the same things, need the same education, and face the same salary and career outlooks.

The field used to offer a geriatric nurse practitioner certification, which has since been retired. Now, all nurse practitioners who want to work in geriatrics and gerontology become adult-gerontology nurse practitioners. AGNPs can pursue certification in acute or primary care.

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Certifications

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Certifications

Professionals must obtain the following credentials to become geriatric or gerontological NPs:

  • BS in nursing
  • RN license
  • MS or doctorate in nursing
  • Certification in adult-gerontology primary care or adult-gerontology acute care
  • Certification in the state where they intend to practice

Other Differences Between Geriatrics and Gerontology

The main difference between gerontology and geriatrics lies in scope. Gerontology takes a broader approach to the aging process than geriatrics, which focuses on individual patients.

Generally speaking, this distinction is much more subtle when it comes to geriatric NPs and gerontology NPs. In many cases the two terms are used interchangeably, and even geriatric NPs need to earn the AGNP certification. Nurses who want to focus primarily on patient medical care and treatment may consider geriatrics, while those interested in the broader processes of aging may prefer gerontology.

Gerontology may offer more diverse career opportunities in the future, particularly for NPs who may want to leave direct patient care at some point.

Geriatrics or Gerontology: Which Path Is Right for You?

Gerontology and geriatrics both offer rewarding, well-paying, and growing career opportunities helping older adults. Which specialty to choose depends on your long-term career goals, availability to complete a degree, and desired work environment.

Below, we outline some of the pros and cons of choosing between gerontology and geriatrics. Keep in mind that geriatric NPs and gerontology NPs both earn the same AGNP credential and often perform the same tasks.

Many people in gerontology and geriatrics use the terms geriatric NP and gerontology NP interchangeably. Still, the two position titles may differ in some small ways.

Gerontology vs. Geriatrics: Pros and Cons

Gerontology Geriatrics
Gerontology is a broad, multidisciplinary field. Geriatricians face an excellent career growth outlook as the U.S. population ages.
Gerontology offers diverse career opportunities in many fields. Geriatricians generally make excellent salaries.
Gerontology NPs and gerontologists can make a difference and improve the lives of older adults in a rewarding field. Geriatrics offers the opportunity to help older adults live healthier, happier, longer lives.
A growing field, gerontologists face a strong career outlook as the U.S. population ages. Geriatric physicians and other healthcare professionals in geriatrics hold specialized medical knowledge for treating aging adults.
Because gerontology encompases more fields and includes low-paying careers, the field potentially offers lower salaries. Stressful work and long hours
In some cases, gerontology offers less room for career growth than geriatrics. Less diverse career opportunities outside of the medical field
The required education and training for some gerontology careers takes a long time. Potential for burnout
Depending on the specific position, gerontology can be stressful. Required education and training can take a long time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between geriatrics and gerontology?

    The difference between a geriatrician vs. gerontologist lies in scope. Gerontologists come from many fields and study the aging process from a broad perspective. Geriatrics is a medical specialty that provides direct patient care to older adults.

  • Are gerontologists medical doctors?

    No. The difference between a geriatrician and a gerontologist can be confusing for those outside the field. Gerontologists study the aging process, while geriatricians, or geriatric doctors, are medical doctors who specialize in treating aging adults. Older patients often exhibit complex chronic conditions.

  • Is gerontology a good career?

    Yes. Gerontology is a good career for people who want to help older adults live healthier, happier lives. As the U.S. population ages, demand for gerontologists in a variety of areas will likely grow.

  • Is geriatrics considered primary care?

    Yes, geriatrics is considered primary care. Geriatric doctors are primary care physicians who specialize in treating older adults. Geriatricians hold specialized training for taking care of the elderly.

Reviewed By:

Portrait of Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master’s students through their culminating projects.

Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and research focus on coaching nurses and nursing students, aiming to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the well-being of students and healthcare professionals.

Featured Image: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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