Elderly woman in a wheelchair grasping the hand of a physical therapist assistant

The Role of PTAs in Geriatric Care

The Vital and Growing World of Geriatric Physical Therapy

Elderly woman in a wheelchair grasping the hand of a physical therapist assistant

It may sound obvious, but many people require more care as they get older. This is a natural process in life. As our technology improves and lifespans increase, it only makes sense that more healthcare workers will be needed. Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) help elderly patients stay active and healthy in their golden years. Under the supervision of physical therapists, these PTAs can develop and guide people through strengthening exercises that meet their unique needs.

If you think about it, physical therapy is vital when it comes to the health and well-being of senior citizens. As people in this group age, the risk of slipping or falling will only increase. This is where teams with Physical Therapist Assistants can help. With a physical therapy program in place, elderly people can utilize services that reduce pain, improve mobility, and boost independence.

This blog post will explore the specific contributions and challenges of PTAs in treating geriatric patients. We’ll also review the duties, techniques, and educational requirements for becoming a Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistant. Learn how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant and consider the top PTA jobs to see if this career path suits you.

Understanding Geriatric Physical Therapy

Geriatric PTAs assist senior citizens in specialized facilities. They aim to restore physical function, maintain mobility, and improve quality of life. They might encounter patients with balance issues after hip fractures or those recovering from joint replacement procedures. In addition, Geriatric PTAs must account for age-related changes, comorbidities, and function decline.

When it comes to physical health, Geriatric PTAs may work with patients across the spectrum. This means that one therapy session can greatly differ from the next. For instance, some clients might require assistance learning how to use a wheelchair or a walker. Other clients might be more active and handle longer amounts of physical activity. Some common conditions treated by geriatric physical therapy teams include osteoarthritis, stroke rehabilitation, and fall prevention.

Some common conditions treated by geriatric physical therapists and PTAs include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Balance disorders
  • Hip and joint replacements
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke

Elderly woman using an exercise ball and weights in physical therapy

The Role of PTAs in Geriatric Care

Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistants help the elderly perform therapeutic exercises that increase their endurance, balance, and coordination. These professionals promote geriatric health by supporting physical therapists at nursing homes and other facilities across the country. Under the supervision of physical therapists, Geriatric PTAs guide patients through strengthening programs designed to enhance their mobility and overall health.

In addition, Geriatric PTAs must maintain a collaborative approach and work with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other healthcare professionals. PTAS must implement treatment plans and conduct exercises. They should also monitor each geriatric patient’s progress.

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs in Geriatric Patients

PTAs encounter a wide range of conditions and disorders when treating geriatric patients, such as osteoporosis, joint replacements, and balance disorders. Take a closer look at each condition with us.


You have likely heard of osteoporosis, but you might not know what it means. It is a bone disease that’s caused by a loss of bone mineral density and bone mass. Alternatively, it can occur when the structure or quality of bone changes. The result? A decrease in bone strength that heightens the risk of broken bones. For elderly populations, osteoporosis can contribute to fatal outcomes down the road.

While some do not experience symptoms in the first stages of bone loss, others may see signs that include a stooped posture, loss of height, back pain, easily broken bones, etc. Exercise and physical therapy are common forms of treatment for osteoporosis, though you should always consult your doctor first. Think about it like this: exercise can slow bone loss and build stronger bones. If you combine exercise with physical therapy, then you’re likely to receive the best results possible for your situation.

Joint Replacements

Joint replacements are exactly how they sound: Surgical procedures replace some or all of a patient’s joints. Once a surgeon has removed the damaged parts of a joint, they will replace them with a prosthesis (artificial joint) made of plastic, ceramic, or metal. Some common joints that require this surgery are knees, hips, ankles, shoulders, wrists, and elbows. Arthritis can often lead to joint replacements; other causes may include car accidents, sports injuries, or serious falls.

There are a range of symptoms to look for, such as swelling, instability, stiffness or loss of motion, joint pain, and limited mobility. After your surgery, you’re likely to complete months of physical therapy. Not only do they teach you how to move safely, but they’ll help you regain mobility and quality of life.

Balance Disorders

Balance disorders are conditions that make people feel dizzy or unstable. Even when they are standing still, they might feel like they’re going to move or fall over. Some symptoms of balance disorders include chronic dizziness, staggering when you try to move or walk, blurred vision, disorientation, lightheadedness, or a floating sensation.

There are various causes of balance disorders. While some have no discernable cause, others could be due to ear infections, medications, head injuries, and more. It’s important to keep in mind that individual risk of balance disorders will continue to increase as you age. This is why physical therapy for balance can make a world of difference. Reduce or prevent falls by working on the following in physical therapy sessions:

  • Strength and flexibility
  • Gait training / the way you walk
  • Training your body to respond correctly to normal movements
  • Activities to reduce fall risk
  • Education on modifications for your home
  • Improving strength to your lower extremities
  • Improving your posture
  • Rebuilding motion to joints
  • Learning proper skin care and footwear

Elderly woman using an exercise band in physical therapy

Techniques Utilized in Geriatric Physical Therapy

PTAs use various techniques and modalities to assist their patients in geriatric therapy. They may utilize geriatric exercises like walking, resistance training, stretching, aquatic therapy, and modalities for pain management. Through this process, Physical Therapist Assistants can help their elderly patients improve muscle strength, coordination, flexibility, balance, and physical endurance.

Geriatric PTAs must also adapt treatment plans to accommodate age-related changes and individual patient needs.

Here are a few other techniques that a physical therapy team might use for older patients:

  • Manual therapy
  • Gait training
  • Balance and coordination training
  • Assistive devices
  • Education on home safety

How to Become a Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistant

Because Geriatric PTAs must meet the basic requirements, they will need to graduate from an accredited associate-degree program and pass the NPTE exam. Some professionals in this field will also pursue certification in geriatrics or home health. Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistants must ensure that they can care for senior citizens. See the American Physical Therapy Association to learn more about specialized training in several areas of physical therapy.

(Click here to learn how to become a Nursing Home Physical Therapist Assistant.)

Our guide breaks down what it takes to become a Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistant:

1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

If you’d like to become a PTA in the U.S., you will need to earn an associate degree from a PTA program that’s accredited by CAPTE. It’s important to remember that each program will have its own set of admissions requirements. To give you a better idea, the PTA degree program at Unitek College requires a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, and more. In addition, the Unitek College program requires background checks and drug screenings.

While your PTA education will likely include some general education requirements, most of your program will focus on core classes like anatomy, physical ailments, medical terminology, and patient care. Students also typically learn about kinesiology and equipment operation, not to mention mental health and legal issues. Aspiring PTAs who are interested in geriatrics may pursue geriatric-centered electives at this time. Ask your program director what elective courses you can try to specialize further in this area of physical therapy.

2. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

In order to obtain your PTA license and start your career, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). This test demonstrates your mastery of the necessary skills to perform PTA tasks. The NPTE is a multiple-choice test with 200 questions. Keep in mind that you’ll have four hours to complete this exam.

If you’re nervous about taking the test, you might want to speak with graduates who have been in this situation. Talk to your teachers and counselors. Consider practice exams, too. Go to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website to learn more about these exams. They offer PEAT, or the Practice Exam and Assessment Tool, to provide you with an idea of what to expect on the exam. However, it’s important to remember that you can only retake the test up to three times in any given 12-month period.

Close up of a physical therapy professional manipulating an older man's arm

3. Obtain Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

After you’ve successfully completed the NPTE, you’ll be eligible to become licensed in the state(s) where you plan to work. Because the NPTE is a national exam, it’s usually easy to transfer your scores to gain licensure in different states. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Although some states have different requirements for maintaining your PTA license, most states will require the completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

4.Gain Work Experience and Additional Certifications

The next step is to build your resume and gain work experience. If you’d like to stand out from other job candidates, you should also obtain certification in basic life support (BLS). PTAs who would like to specialize in geriatrics should apply for jobs with geriatric physical therapists. Not only is this one of the most valuable ways to gain experience, but it can also serve as an excellent networking opportunity.

In addition, you might want to consider advanced specialization or certification. Look into certification in home health with the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). They offer a home health section that’s specifically designed for physical therapists and PTAs who are interested in working with senior citizens. APTA even provides eligible individuals with an Advanced Competency in Home Health Certification.

In order for you to achieve the PTA certification, you must complete a course bundle with five online classes, attend a live or virtual seminar to demonstrate home care skills, and more. If this interests you, continue reading at the American Physical Therapy Association.

Challenges of Treating Geriatric Patients

Physical Therapist Assistants face several challenges in geriatric settings, such as cognitive impairments, multiple comorbidities, and adherence to treatment plans. Some strategies to overcome these challenges can include effective communication techniques and interdisciplinary collaboration. Above all else, Geriatric PTAs must ensure that they provide patient-centered care.

In addition, PTAs in this role must know how to properly interact with elderly patients. This includes several mental and emotional skills. Again, since Geriatric PTAs work directly with senior citizens, who can be particularly vulnerable, they should have great interpersonal skills and compassionate natures. These specialized Physical Therapist Assistants will need to move and manipulate the bodies of their patients. As you can see, physical stamina is vital to the success of any PTA.

Benefits of Treating Geriatric Patients

Many healthcare professionals find it very satisfying to work with older patients. Not only are they experienced and worldly, but they have likely spent years contributing to society. Now, the youth can help return the favor. Geriatric PTAs can take great pride in helping the older generation maintain their independence, dignity, and health.

Not only can PTAs make a significant impact on their quality of life, but they can also provide elderly citizens with as much functional independence as possible. They can gain a great deal of fulfillment by witnessing vulnerable populations improve mobility, pain management, and overall well-being. Most Geriatric PTAs foster important and meaningful connections with their patients as well.

Older woman lifting weights in physical therapy

Your Journey into Physical Therapy Starts Here

In conclusion, this guide sheds light on the career path of a Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistant. For people who love the idea of helping elderly patients improve their motor skills, minimize their risk of falling, and promote independence, becoming a Geriatric PTA could be a wonderful career choice. Physical therapy can also boost the mental health of senior citizens and provide PTAs with a great deal of job satisfaction. Now and in the future, there will always be a need for healthcare professionals like Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistants.

There are many rewarding aspects of a career in geriatric physical therapy, such as positively impacting the daily routines of older adults and helping them live life to the fullest. If this is one of your career goals, pursuing your passion for geriatric therapy with ongoing education and professional development in this dynamic field is essential. Unitek College offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program in Sacramento and several other healthcare programs. They are designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge needed for a successful healthcare career.

At Unitek, we aim to provide you with the necessary skills and experience to excel as a Physical Therapist Assistant. We want you ready to contribute as compassionate, ethical professionals who uphold the dignity of their patients. Upon graduating, we also want to prepare you for licensure by helping you confidently undertake the PTA certification exams.

In addition, our career services team offers several perks. They provide students with mock interviews and networking opportunities with potential employers. They also offer resume critiques to help each student succeed in becoming a PTA.

Join us today!