Application of ABA in Behavioral Gerontology

The study of behavior analysis has matured substantially over the last few decades as practicing psychologists refine their techniques and explore the numerous opportunities within their profession. Behavioral gerontology, or the age-specific application of behavior analysis for older adults, is one of the major specializations to emerge from the broader field. The techniques of applied behavior analysis (ABA) have proven to be an effective way to help manage age-related behavior issues in both a domestic or institutional setting. Members of the profession also have the benefit of a strong job growth outlook due to the expected increase in demand from a growing senior population.

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The Use of ABA in Behavioral Gerontology

Until recently, the majority of qualified applied behavior analysts used their skills to aid patients suffering from an autism spectrum disorder or other health condition that produced challenging behaviors in younger patients. While a substantial portion of professional behavior analysts still focus on autism and developmental disorders, others are adapting the techniques to fit other specific needs. Behavioral gerontologists build their therapy programs from the three fundamental concepts of conventional ABA: antecedent, behavior, and consequence. They apply many of the same skills and methods as behavior analysts who work with younger autism patients, with a few notable exceptions and considerations.

Age-Specific Concerns and Considerations

While the core practices of ABA are common among patients of any age or mental status, behavioral gerontology considers the particular needs of older patients and reshapes some of the concepts to better fit that population. Dementia is one of the most common age-related mental health problems experienced by older adults and can cause significant personal, social and health issues if left unchecked. This condition is actually a general term for the mental symptoms that arise from many different ailments, including Alzheimer’s disease. Age-related depression and anxiety are also concerns in older adults, especially if they provoke unhealthy activities or living conditions.

Behavior Goals for Aging Patients

The ultimate purpose of behavioral gerontology is similar to that of ABA therapy for autism patients: to help them function independently and improve quality of life as much as possible. Therapy sessions are typically driven by the goal to reinforce appropriate behaviors and reduce the severity or frequency of challenging ones. The secondary goal for many behavioral gerontologists is to educate patients as well as their friends, family members and caregivers about behavior management techniques. Behavior analysis achieves optimal results when practiced consistently and frequently.

Personalized Therapy Programs

ABA therapy techniques are strongly rooted in individualized analysis and treatment, and this principle also applies to behavior analysis and management for age-related conditions. Since there are numerous causes of dementia, memory problems and other cognitive conditions, therapy must revolve around the specific needs of individual patients. Analysts must study each patient as well as their environment to identify potential triggers for undesirable behaviors, which can include abusive language, poor hygiene, extreme paranoia and habitual hoarding.

Systemic ABA Applications in Institutions

Even though ABA practices usually revolve around individualized therapy, they can also be applied on a larger scale in nursing homes and other institutions. For example, placing a sealed box with personal items outside of each room can help patients with memory loss find their door even if they can’t remember the numbers. Some long-term care facilities implement a token economy, which rewards residents with a fabricated currency that they can exchange for special privileges or items. This gives staff members and behavior analysts a simple and consistent way to reinforce desired behavior in a mature context. The efficacy of token systems are also supported by scientific research, with one study of 80 patients finding a significant decrease in strange behavior after six months, according to the American Psychological Association.

Working as a Behavioral Gerontologist

Behavior analysts who want to provide therapy to patients often find employment opportunities at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for the elderly. Licensed practitioners can also work independently as consultants, offering services to accommodate patients who still live independently. In either case, behavioral gerontologists split their time between first-hand analysis, active therap, and environmental management. Analysts need to know how to communicate with different kinds of patients so they can connect with them and build a trusting relationship. Practicing psychologists heavily rely on their notes and written observations, so they need to develop strong organizational skills and diligent record-keeping as well.

Expected Demand for Qualified ABA Professionals

The age composition of the general population fluctuates over time, but the coming years will see a significant shift towards an older average. The number of people aged 65 or over is expected to double in the United States by 2060, increasing from around 46 million to 98 million, according to the Population Reference Bureau. These projections also indicate a corresponding increase in demand for qualified care for age-related health conditions, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. These factors contribute to a strong job growth for qualified ABA professionals specializing in behavioral gerontology over the next few decades.

Preparing for a Career in the Field

Behavior analysts need at least a master’s degree before they can practice independently, although students graduating with a bachelor’s can find opportunities to work with patients as part of a team. It’s possible for current ABA professionals to refocus their career towards age-related care, but students can get a head start by specializing in gerontology or seeking related coursework as part of their degree path. Many facilities also offer volunteer positions, which can give prospective gerontology students a chance to gain first-hand experience with potential patients and work environments.

Behavioral gerontology has been growing and evolving over the last few decades, but increasing demand for services is expected to accelerate both job growth and academic development in the field. Analysts who can successfully implement the principles of applied behavior analysis in conjunction with behavioral gerontology techniques are positioned to greatly improve quality of life for patients as well as their family and caregivers.

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