"It's important for students enrolled in gerontology to become strong advocates in eradicating ageism within the culture," she says. "Strides have been made to confront other 'isms' -- racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism -- but ageism continues to flourish."
But despite the need for people with expertise in working with the elderly, the field can be a tough sell.
"The number of colleges offering gerontology programs is increasing, but not by a huge means," says Derek D. Stepp, director of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, a national membership organization of colleges and universities that offer education, training and research programs in the field of aging.
The nation's 90 different gerontology master's programs are in a similar situation, Stepp says. The biggest increase has been in doctoral programs, which have grown from two to nine over the past few years.
"You'd think every school in Florida would have aging programs, but it's not necessarily the case," he added.
In attracting students to a gerontology major, schools must combat "the negative connotation that you're just dealing with sick old people," Stepp says.
"It's very hard to sell to 18-year-olds, very few of them can imagine themselves working in the field of aging," says Hodgson, who chairs the department of sociology and gerontology at Quinnipiac. "It's not on their radar, it's not on the TV screen. There's no 'CSI: Gerontology,' which has brought students to the criminal justice program."
Although it may not seem glamorous, the field of aging offers diverse career choices. In addition to working at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, graduates of gerontology programs go on to work in nonprofits, government agencies, health care organizations or insurance agencies. Or, they can work in a traditional field such as architecture or investments, and specialize in the needs of the elderly.
But college-age students need a lot of foresight to know that's what they're going to want to do.
"It takes a student who, at a relatively young age, has had a real attachment to older people," says John Krout, director of the Gerontology Institute at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.
"It's one thing to love grandma, but it's quite another to know that you want to make a career out of it," he adds.
An attachment to her grandmother and her grandmother's siblings is what inspired Jessica Berman, a junior at Ithaca College, to study gerontology. She's double-majoring in speech-language pathology and audiology, and plans to help seniors with hearing issues.
"My main reason for majoring in gerontology was to be able to incorporate what I love, interacting with and getting to know and help older people, in my future endeavors," she says.