Geriatricians Ease Growing Pains

Nov 17, 2008

Doctors who treat older people are in high demand these days and with an aging population that trend is expected to grow. As part of our Project Milwaukee series on aging and wellness, WUWM’s LaToya Dennis examines the role geriatricians play in the lives of their patients.

Bob Merino

Bob Merino first switched from a primary care doctor to a geriatrician about two months ago. Geriatricians are physicians that specialize in treating older adults. Merino says the reasoning behind his decision was simple.

“I’m 81 years old. I think that’s one of the good reasons,” Merino says.

Merino says another driving factor was his failing health.

“Now, tell me about some of your health problems.”

“Well I got a lot of them. One problem that’s causing me trouble right now is retention of fluids. That’s the main one you know,” Merino says.

Merino went to the doctor a few weeks ago because he had water building up around his heart and lungs. It’s a problem he’s dealt with for years. Since that checkup, he’s lost 20 pounds of water weight and has around 10 more to go. But he’s well enough now to start tackling other issues. Merino has an appointment with a cardiologist today because his doctor is worried about congestive heart failure. Geriatrician Reny Varghese says Merino is typical of the patients she sees every day.

“These are folks not just with one issue. It’s with multiple, you’re talking about three or four issues in one person and you have to really address everything each and every time you see them,” Varghese says.

Varghese works for Wheaton Fransiscan. On Wednesdays she sees patients at Luther Haven. It’s an assisted living facility in Milwaukee. Most of her clients are in their mid-eighties. Varghese says they often need special attention that primary care doctors usually can’t afford to give them, because they have such limited time.

“I’ve learned being in this field never to take anything for granted. People will come to me for initial evaluations and they’ll tell me oh no, there’s nothing wrong for me. I say you know what, give me five minutes. Let me go digging I’ll find something. I know that there’s something there and I’m concerned about it. I always want to nip it in the bud before something bad happens,” Varghese says.

Gertrude Semenske

That concern and care is what patient Gertrude Semenske appreciates most. She’s 83-years-old and has severe arthritis, a heart problem, and sees a kidney specialist.

“She keeps in personal touch with my other doctors, my cardiac man and my kidney doctor. She’s just very thorough,” Semenske says.

Semenske says it’s the best experience she’s ever had with a doctor. While Varghese is used to treating older patients like Semenske she says it’s important for people to know you don’t have to be in your eighties to see a geriatrician.

“The other half of the patients that I deal with are the people who are younger who are a little bit healthier. They want to avoid the situation that their parents had, so I go through a lot of preventative medicine with them," Varghese says.

“And when you say a little bit younger, like what age?”

"I’m talking about 65. My oldest patient is 106 years old so when I see a 65- year-old or 60-year-old who wants information and they come to me and say Reny help me out with this, what should I do? I’m so happy to see that, Varghese says.

Varghese stresses pap smears and mammograms are still recommended for women in their seventies. She also acknowledges that while strides are being made and studies are ongoing, there are some problems older people face like dementia and muscle loss, that can only be treated--not prevented.