Seniors Study Seniors: More Undergrads Major in Old Age

Going to parties, living in the dorms and ... contemplating the burdens of old age?

That is college life for a growing number of students like Emily Keppler, a senior gerontology major at Ithaca College in New York state. She says people are usually surprised she has chosen to pursue a career with the elderly at such a young age -- until she tells them how much she loved working as a dietary assistant at a nursing home.

"I knew after I had that job in high school that this was a population I could work with everyday," she says. "I had such fulfillment working with older adults."

After graduation, Keppler hopes to work to make services and programs more accessible to the elderly. This summer, she interned with the Center for Healthy Aging, a nonprofit in Santa Monica, Calif., which does just that.

College Seniors, Studying Senior Citizens

More than 46 colleges across the country allow students to major in gerontology, which is the study of the process of aging as it affects the physical, mental and social aspects of life. Students take courses in everything from medical ethics to psychology and sociology.

At many more schools, undergraduates are minoring or concentrating in gerontology, taking courses on the biological, social, psychological and cultural aspects of aging as well as policy issues and research methods.

An important component of these programs is an internship or doing field work. And many programs, such as the one at Ithaca College, ask students to choose a concentration in areas such as management, recreation/leisure services, health promotion or counseling.

Although college students are just entering adulthood, studying the elderly will put them in position to enter a hot job market.

The number of jobs in gerontology-related fields will increase by more than 36 percent by 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2020, there will be 53.2 million Americans older than age 65 -- forming 15.8 percent of the population -- and 6.5 million of those will be over 85, according to the Census Bureau.

Changing Face of Aging

The first of the baby boom generation will reach age 65 by 2010. They are the ones who will change the face of aging and what it takes to care for the aging.

"We have an aging community, but the baby boomers are not going to be frail," Stepp says. "This is not just going to be a group to take care of, but a group to work with."

Helping the baby boomers navigate the programs and services available to them when they join the ranks of the elderly will be an area of strong job growth, says Lynne Hodgson, who chairs the department of sociology and gerontology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

"Our focus is to help the elderly to remain independent and viable in a community setting for as long as possible," she says. "We don't want premature institutionalization."

The baby boomer generation, for whom quality of life has always been important, will expect no less as it ages.

"The field of gerontology itself has shifted from an emphasis on the problems of aging to the promotion of successful aging," says Nancy A. Orel, an assistant professor at the gerontology department at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. "This includes factors that create a healthy, fulfilling life in later adulthood."

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