Given my new tack, I thought it would be handy to understand the terms “geriatrics” and “gerontology” clearly. I knew that geriatricians were medical doctors, and Wikipedia puts the distinction clearly: “Geriatrics is a subspecialty of medicine that focuses on health care of the elderly. … The term geriatrics differs from gerontology, which is the study of the aging process itself.” But check out the how Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 11th Ed., defines “geriatrics” [emphasis added]: “a branch of medicine that deals with the problems and diseases of old age and aging people.” Compare its definition of gerontology — “the comprehensive study of aging and the problems of the aged” ― to Wikipedia’s: “the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.”
Moving back to “geriatrics” and on to the Encarta® World English Dictionary, we get a neutral first definition: “1. relating to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illness in senior citizens” and a humdinger of a second one: “2. an offensive term meaning showing the effects of age.” The excellent New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with my Mac elucidates under USAGE: “Geriatric is the normal, semiofficial term used in the U.S. and Britain when referring to the health care of old people (: a geriatric ward; : geriatric patients). When used outside such contexts, however, it typically carries overtones of being worn out and decrepit and can therefore be offensive.” That kind of says it all.
Here’s a kicker from my friend Hilary Siebens, herself a geriatrician. “Geriatricians do as a group have a commitment to take care of the whole patient and have chosen an unglamorous field, so they are different as a group from other doctors,” she notes. “And a study of satisfaction with practice recently showed geriatricians [rating] one of the highest among all the medical specialties.” It’ll be interesting to find out why.