Of the many types of healthcare practitioners who care for the elderly, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and audiologists may have the greatest potential to actually improve the quality of life for older Americans. SLPs, who evaluate and treat speech, language and swallowing disorders, and audiologists, who identify and treat hearing and balance disorders, can help restore a person's fundamental ability to communicate.
"We can give elderly clients hope," says Donna Geffner, PhD, who is licensed and certified in both audiology and speech-language pathology and is director of the graduate programs and the Speech and Hearing Center at St. John's University in Jamaica, New York.
Many age-related conditions, like Alzheimer's disease, strokes and hearing loss, are expected to become more prevalent as the country's population ages. Indeed, the government projects the number of people 65 and older will nearly double between 2005 and 2030, to 71.5 million. The speech-language pathology and audiology professions are taking steps to prepare for this great gray wave.
In their graduate programs, most SLPs, who are required to have a master's degree, complete several geriatric-themed courses, including counseling and adult neurological disorders, Geffner says. Audiologists, who also must hold a master's degree but will be required to have a doctorate by 2012, are also trained to counsel older adults and their families about hearing loss.
SLPs and audiologists must have a strong understanding of the aging process and recognize the adjustments, such as speaking slower, that may be needed to work effectively with elderly clients, Geffner says.
Keeping Up with Advancing Techniques, Technologies
Both audiology and speech-language pathology are dynamic, evolving professions, Geffner says. SLPs must continually adopt new techniques and technologies to address the communication and swallowing disorders of elderly clients who've had strokes, for example, or to train the families of Alzheimer's patients to communicate effectively with relatives suffering from dementia and impaired memories.
Audiologists must constantly stay abreast of the latest and greatest amplification devices available for fitting and dispensing. "Hearing aids as we know them today won't look the same in five or 10 years," says audiologist Richard Gans, PhD, president of the American Academy of Audiology. "We're going to see big technological breakthroughs."
Combining the scientific and interpersonal aspects of audiology is rewarding, Gans says, especially in working with older Americans. "People look at hearing loss as a sign of weakness or of getting older," he says. "Some clients will be 90 years old and tell you they're not old enough for a hearing aid, or that they don't want to spend the money they were planning on leaving their kids. But what if they can't communicate with their kids for the last 10 years of their life?" The stigma attached to wearing hearing aids has lessened in recent decades and may diminish further as the devices become smaller and less obtrusive, Gans adds.
Besides fitting, dispensing and providing follow-up care for hearing-aid users, audiologists also help diagnose and treat balance disorders. About 50 percent of all accidental deaths in people older than 65 are due to balance-related falls, and most balance disorders are related to an inner-ear dysfunction, says Gans, who is also founder and executive director of the American Institute of Balance, a balance-disorders treatment center in Seminole, Florida.
Bettering Patients' Outlook on Life
Audiologists and SLPs work with clients of all ages, but it's the expected needs of aging Americans that should fuel steady growth in both professions through 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For professionals interested in helping older Americans communicate effectively despite obstacles, speech-language pathology and audiology are fulfilling career choices. "We can help improve not only a client's quality of life, but their whole outlook on life as well," Geffner says.