Physical Therapist Assistants and the Aging Population

Treatments, Assessments, Preventive Care, and Challenges

Medical professional smiling at an elderly woman in a wheelchair

Most people’s idea of physical therapy involves healing from an illness or injury. While recovery and rehabilitation are both huge parts of the job for physical therapist assistants, so is proactively helping people maintain good health—especially for the aging population.

As people get older, they naturally lose strength, mobility, and bone density, which can make them more susceptible to falls, injuries, and a variety of other health issues. By guiding them through structured exercise and mobility routines, physical therapist assistants can help older adults maintain their independence and enjoy fulfilling lives well into their later years.

Let’s take a closer look at the numerous ways physical therapy can benefit seniors and the importance of physical therapist assistants in promoting healthy aging.

Understanding the Aging Population

People are living longer, healthier lives than ever, which means the world’s population of older adults is projected to grow significantly in the coming years. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 6 people will be 60 or older by the year 2030—and by 2050, the number of people older than 60 is projected to double to over 2 billion.

Although advances in treatments and technologies have increased both life expectancy and quality of life, older people still require more medical care as they age. With so much of the population poised to enter their senior years, demand for healthcare services is expected to rise sharply in the coming years.

As people age, they commonly experience health issues like arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and an increased risk of falls or other physical injuries. Physical activity is a critical component of treating many of these age-related health challenges—or sometimes even preventing them entirely. Physical therapy is often a critical component of healthy aging because it encourages regular activity in older people who tend to live more sedentary lives.

The Role of Physical Therapist Assistants in Treating the Aging Population

During their training, physical therapist assistants receive a well-rounded education that teaches them to help people of all ages become healthier through the power of movement. PTAs study pharmacology, anatomy, and applied kinesiology, and learn about a broad range of treatments and therapeutic procedures for many different conditions, including those that affect older adults.

Physical therapist assistants work under the direction of a licensed physical therapist, and collaborate closely with them to assess older patients and implement an appropriate treatment plan. While there are limits to a PTA’s scope of practice in terms of diagnosing conditions and developing plans of care, they’re valuable contributors in many PT clinics. Physical therapist assistants often spend more time with patients than their supervising therapist, and their updates and observations can play an important role in refining patients’ treatment plans.

How To Assess Older Adults’ Physical Needs

The initial assessment of a physical therapy patient is one of the most critical parts of the process, as it establishes a baseline for each person’s current health and helps set realistic goals for each individual. Many assessment techniques are applicable regardless of a patient’s age, though older patients require some unique considerations to ensure treatment is safe and appropriately catered to their health circumstances.

Some of the most commonly used assessments for geriatric physical therapy patients include:

  • Cognition and mental state – In addition to screening for dementia and measuring a patient’s memory levels, this helps identify depression or other common mental health challenges among older adults.
  • Functional mobility – Measuring an older patient’s balance, gait, and how long it takes them to rise from a seated or lying position helps therapists identify issues that can be corrected in therapy.
  • Independence in daily activities – Determining an aging patient’s proficiency with daily tasks like eating, bathing, dressing, or preparing food helps set realistic goals to improve their quality of life.

A holistic approach to physical therapy (and healthcare in general) benefits any patient, but especially senior patients who are more likely to experience multiple health conditions that impact one another. By thoroughly assessing older patients and understanding their physical and emotional needs, physical therapy providers can deliver more effective treatments and provide better outcomes in collaboration with the rest of a patient’s healthcare team.

Close up of medical professionals looking at paperwork

How to Develop a Tailored Treatment Plan

Every patient’s individual circumstances determine what successful treatment looks like for them, and the early stages of physical therapy involve setting goals and benchmarks for their ongoing progress. The responsibility of developing a treatment plan falls under a physical therapist’s scope of practice, though they often rely on physical therapist assistants for help with patient assessments that inform the prescribed program.

Setting realistic goals for older patients gives physical therapists a way to track how well their treatment plan is working, and keeps patients engaged in their therapy. At-home exercises are often an important part of continuing their progress, and motivating senior patients to stick with their activity routine can make a major difference in both the short and long term.

Staying physically active helps older adults maintain their mobility, independence, and more broadly, their dignity. Physical health is linked closely with mental and emotional well-being, and a carefully crafted physical therapy routine can benefit all of the above as people experience the natural effects of getting older.

Monitoring Progress and Adapting Plans

The prescribed treatment plan based on a patient’s initial assessment is considered a starting point rather than a final solution. As treatment progresses, physical therapists and PTAs evaluate a patient’s progress and how well the treatment plan is working. Treatment plans are frequently adjusted throughout the course of physical therapy based on how the patient responds and any challenges they experience along the way.

Modifying treatment plans is the responsibility of a licensed physical therapist, but physical therapist assistants make important contributions to the process. Through a combination of patient interviews and objective measurements, PTAs gather data on range of motion, patient pain levels, and other factors. In collaboration with their supervising therapist, these data points can be used to fine-tune a patient’s treatment plan. For example, if a particular exercise is causing a patient discomfort or anxiety, it’s often possible to substitute a different movement that accomplishes the same goals.

Implementing Physical Therapy Interventions

Physical therapist assistants treat a broad range of health issues among aging patients. When treating older adults, PTAs are most often focused on treatments that improve mobility and balance, or those that reduce pain caused by chronic health conditions. Frequently used treatment methods include targeted exercise and activity routines, manual therapy like stretching, massage, or joint mobilization, and other modalities like ice or heat packs, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation.

PTAs who work with older adults also commonly train their patients on the use of assistive devices, which can be anything from standard walkers and wheelchairs to advanced robotic prostheses. As medical technology continues to advance in coming years, physical therapist assistants are likely to encounter an increasing number of exciting new devices that can drastically improve their senior patients’ quality of life.

The Importance of Preventive Care and Education

Because older adults are more susceptible to injury, physical therapist assistants who work with the aging population often teach their patients about risk management and injury prevention. Falls are one of the most frequent causes of injury among seniors, and it’s common for PTAs who work with geriatric patients to guide them through activity routines designed specifically to reduce their risk of a potentially harmful incident.

Physical therapist assistants also educate their older patients on the overall importance and benefits of physical activity. As people get older, those who stay physically and mentally active are generally more resistant to the natural effects of aging. (The phrase “use it or lose it”  certainly applies to our bodies and minds as we age!) Because of this, physical therapy for seniors often includes exercises to promote whole-body wellness and lower the risk of various age-related health concerns.

Physiotherapist helping an elderly patient use a balance ball

The Challenges of Treating Aging Patients

Providing physical therapy treatment to older adults comes with some unique challenges and considerations, both professionally and ethically. Because older patients may have limited balance or mobility, administering treatments (or just moving around the clinic) requires extra care and attention beyond what most other patients normally require. And because some older patients may have a reduced capacity to make decisions due to cognitive decline, it’s essential for physical therapy providers to act as advocates for their patients’ overall health.

As part of their education, physical therapist assistants learn about the safety, legal, and ethical considerations of providing therapy to geriatric patients. This includes training on how to avoid ageist practices, and how to communicate with older patients, their caregivers, and other members of their healthcare team.

Start Your Physical Therapy Career at Provo College

Many physical therapist assistants find working with older patients to be particularly rewarding. They have lots of knowledge and stories to share, and it’s satisfying to help people age gracefully. Many things that able-bodied people take for granted—like navigating stairs, fixing a meal, or taking a shower—become a real challenge for seniors, and a dedicated physical therapist assistant can make a major impact on older adults’ daily standard of living.

If you’re considering a career as a physical therapist assistant, you want to choose a training program that prepares you to work with all types of patient populations, including older adults. The accredited physical therapist assistant program at Provo College teaches you the therapeutic and communication skills you need to change people’s lives for the better. You’ll learn from experienced physical therapy professionals, and complete supervised clinical work to build your confidence as you begin your new career.

Want to learn more about treating older patients as a PTA? Check out our in-depth guide on how to become a senior care physical therapist assistant. Or if you’re curious about other career options for PTAs, you can explore our list of the top physical therapist assistant jobs.