Careers in Aging
Future Career Opportunities
The oldest old, generally defined as those over the age of eighty-five, are the fastestgrowing portion of the older population. In 1900 there were 122,000 people in this category in the United States. By 1990 the number had increased to three million. This group will not grow as rapidly during the years between 2000 and 2010, because of the smaller number of people born during the 1930s, but after that date, growth of this segment will be very rapid (Hobbs and Damon) and will result in social and economic pressures on their children, other caregivers, and society.
The interest in the oldest old results from their high level of difficulty in carrying out personal care tasks. These functional limitations must generally be compensated for with assistance from family members or hired professionals. Increasing levels of disability may require the more specialized caregiving that can be provided by trained professionals.
Persons over sixty-five will increase from 35 million in 2000 to 40 million in 2010 (Hobbs and Damon), but the impact may not be as strongly felt, or at least not felt in the same areas of professional service. With the many advances in medicine, an increasing percentage of these elderly persons will fall in the category "well old" (over sixty-five). Although they will not require the basic health services of the old old, they will demand service for their own needs and desires. This is where new careers in aging are already beginning to emerge. Professionals with gerontology training can meet the unique needs of this group in such areas as financial counseling, insurance, travel and recreation, housing, transportation, participation in cultural and artistic endeavors, education for second and third careers, special interest education, computer literacy, spiritual and social expression, and community activism.
The demographic data further suggest the challenges to be met by educational institutions that seek to prepare professionals to serve this growing clientele. More college-level educational gerontologists will be needed who can teach the unique principles of older adult education. The resulting graduates will be better able to create effective senior learning opportunities in the community.
Higher education also requires gerontologists who are both researchers and teachers. Gerontology-related research is an ever-broadening field because more information is needed in such areas as demographics, for planners in all fields; pharmacy, regarding drug interactions and the efficacy of alternative health programs; and sociology and psychology, for understanding the diversity of the aging as individuals and as groups. Careers in teaching gerontology are also expanding with the advent of distance learning courses for the professional as well as of enrichment courses for seniors.
Opportunities for careers in aging grew substantially during the last quarter of the twentieth century, and there are many indications for future growth. The rate of increase in professional gerontology is directly tied to how well certain professional challenges are met in the future.
- • Even though this career field has grown significantly, there needs to be an increased awareness of the opportunities presented by, and the desirability of, this career choice. When compared with other professionals on the bases of academic preparation, salaries, and job satisfaction, a 1995 survey of gerontological personnel found salaries comparable with other professions, the educational preparation as relevant and useful, and the subsequent employment as fulfilling. Furthermore, 90 percent of survey respondents indicated they would recommend the program to others, and that they would enroll in the program again if given the opportunity (Peterson, Douglass, and Lobenstine).
- • Potential employers who are not trained in gerontology are less likely to seek gerontologically trained employees. As increasing numbers of gerontology graduates rise to administrative positions and as community information becomes more widespread, this concern can be met.
- • Potential senior clients who have accepted negative ageism stereotypes are reluctant to seek out gerontology specialists. The living examples of the well old and their stories of how they have maintained their vitality can help seniors take a more active role in their own future. The increasing educational level of tomorrow's seniors and the mass media's dissemination of information can have a positive effect.
- • Negative societal attitudes about seniors inhibit support of senior services other than those for health and income needs. The well old may be the best advertisement and advocates for more positive attitudes.
- • Professional standards need to be defined as they pertain to both the professionals and the institutions that train them. Professional certification is still not available through a gerontology program (Fairchild et al.). As long as people can enter the field without some measure of their knowledge beyond that of receiving a degree, careers in aging will remain underrecognized and insecure. A related concern is the lack of accreditation of professional gerontology training programs. In the world of professions, accreditation has come to be a determination of quality. The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education has developed a quality review process for gerontology programs (AGHE Program of Merit). Professional gerontology associations will continue to keep these concerns under review.
- • The lack of cultural diversity in the cadre of gerontology professionals inhibits services to the broad diversity of older persons. Intentional recruitment by colleges can help bridge this gap.
- • The availability of financial assistance for gerontology students is a growing need as college costs rise (American Association of Retired Persons). Less government and philanthropic funding is available for scholarships and for new and innovative programs. Colleges, and gerontology departments in particular, can intensify their search for student support. Advocates for seniors, who may also include the seniors themselves, can work for community program support.
These challenges and more need to be met with creative solutions if career opportunities are to expand to meet the needs of a diverse older population. It will require determined, knowledgeable leadership from people employed in the field of aging. The national associations on aging are the most likely groups to lead the effort and coordinate the work of others. They can bring together educational institutions to advance training, seek foundations to fund education and programming, and promote community awareness and involvement. Ultimately, there must be an intergenerational effort uniting concerned persons of all ages to further advance the opportunities for careers in aging.
DAVID A. PETERSON
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