Behavioral Gerontology: A Different Picture

When we think of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) our minds go straight to Autism and the younger population.  However, ABA has positive benefits for those suffering from other developmental issues as well as those in other age groups.  In fact, behavioral gerontology, the application of the principles of ABA in elderly patients to address the problems of aging, has many benefits and prove to be effective in treating the older population suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and anxiety.  These issues combined with other physical infirmities can cause many behavioral problems including confusion, hoarding, apathy, OCD, a decrease in personal hygiene, difficulty communicating, and memory loss.  Though our first instinct is to treat the older generation with a handful of medications, some of the issues they face are not medical, but can stem from the environment as well.  So let’s step out of the box and explore ABA and gerontology.


As we’ve discussed before, ABA looks at the context in which problem behaviors occur.  The antecedent (what happens before the behavior), the actual behavior, and the consequence (what happens after the behavior), and because of this approach and the emphasis on environmental factors, ABA is the perfect treatment when looking at age-related behaviors.  This proves true when looking at a few case studies and examples of using ABA to treat elderly patients.  In one study, dementia patients in a care facility were getting lost when looking for their room.  These patients suffered from short-term memory problems yet could recall older memories very clearly.  The solution was not to turn to pharmaceuticals but to attach shadow boxes that contained memories, as markers on their rooms. This solution not only helped with the patients being able to independently find their rooms but also helped with their frustrations and attitudes.  A simple environmental change can make a huge difference.


Another use of ABA techniques in the older population is the use of the token economy.  Positive reinforcement is one of the more well-known techniques in ABA and can lead to consistent and long-term appropriate behaviors.  Using tokens to earn and gain access to preferred items or activities can serve as a huge motivator to anybody, including the elderly population.


Let’s consider tossing out the idea that the elderly population’s only hope is through multiple medications.  Let’s consider tossing out the idea that they are “set in their stubborn ways” and seek to really understand their frustrations that can lead to inappropriate behavior.  Let’s consider ABA to help change the behavior of older patients as well as improve their memory and mood!  Confusion, depression, apathy, memory loss, difficulty communicating- all issues that ABA techniques can help improve and provide a better quality of life for those last years.



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