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Beacon Senior News

Caring hands for an aging population

Jun 01, 2020 01:46PM ● By Melanie Wiseman

Mathwig frequently receives calls from agencies asking when the next nurses aid class will be ready for hire. Most likely, these students will have jobs before they graduate. Photos courtesy of CMU.

Colorado Mesa University prepares students for the future of aging

It’s common knowledge that with advanced health care and more active lifestyles, our population is getting older—much, much older. In just 10 years from now, 61 million Baby Boomers will be 66-84, and seniors age 85 and older will total nine million.

With the elderly population set to nearly double by 2030, it becomes more important for scientists, economists and policymakers to evaluate imminent challenges for caring for the elderly and assuring that sufficient resources and systems are available.

With more people retiring to Colorado’s Western Slope, Colorado Mesa University (CMU) is stepping up to meet the needs of our communities’ growing senior population by preparing students for careers in gerontology.

Filling a need

Although getting old is an inevitable process, it’s not always a smooth one. This is where gerontology specialists come in—to help seniors adjust to their changing lives and ensure their well-being.

According to Kristina Mathwig, director of gerontology specialist programs at Western Colorado Community College (WCCC)—a division of CMU—a community needs assessment recognized a workforce shortage in careers that support aging, as well as the need for training.

“We need to have the right professionals out there to help the aging live fulfilling lives,” Mathwig said.

In August 2018, WCCC added a two-year Associates of Applied Sciences Gerontology Specialist degree to its curriculum as well as and a 20-credit hour certificate with an emphasis in one of three tracks: community activities, cognitive behavior of the elderly, and end-of-life care.

In its inaugural year, the program had 76 students and its enrollment jumped over 25 percent the next year.

“Five students made gerontology their major, while the rest minored or took electives in the field,” said Mathwig. “It’s a great specialty to add on to majors such as nursing, physician’s assistant, social sciences, psychology, counseling and mental health.”

Gerontology is the multidisciplinary study of aging that incorporates biology, psychology and sociology. Since modern medicine and health care technology is increasing human life expectancy dramatically, it’s now necessary to provide a physical and mental support system for our future elderly.

“Our goal is to help create age-friendly communities,” said Mathwig.

Mathwig frequently receives calls from agencies asking when the next nurses aid class will be ready for hire. Most likely, these students will have jobs before they graduate. Jobs in the aging services management and gerontology specializations will be trending upward for decades to come.

CMU WCCC gerontology

While WCCC's gerontology program is fully online, it's a great specialty to add on to majors such as nursing, physician's assistant, social sciences, psychology, counseling and mental health. Pictured: WCCC Allied Health students.

A growing career field

In addition to being a lucrative career option, course work in gerontology is also a way to promote happiness for the elderly.

Society often “psychologically retires” a person long before any real debilitating impacts of aging actually sets in. Gerontology specialists are trained to lift up these wise minds, giving them a new perspective on the life still ahead of them.

WCCC’s gerontology program is fully online, boasting faculty from around the U.S. who work in various gerontology careers. One advantage of the online program is that it makes it easier for working professionals to bolster their careers while maintaining their present jobs. A hybrid of online and practical experience courses is currently being discussed.

“We couldn’t ask for a better faculty,” said Mathwig. “All have very impressive credentials, have master's degrees or higher, and each has their specialties.”

According to the American Society on Aging, the current shortage of gerontologist workers means a wealth of opportunity for those wanting to enter the field.

Graduates of the WCCC program may find careers in social services, community services for the elderly, housing authorities, hospice and nursing homes, adult day centers, private home care programs, assisted living, senior centers and other public agencies. Combining the gerontology programs with management degrees opens students to management positions in residential care facilities, home health agencies, hospital aging services and community health care agencies.

There's also a vast shortage of eldercare doctors—in part, because many medical students don’t find geriatrics to be as “glamorous” as other specialties. It's also not held in as high esteem or pay level as, say, a surgeon.

“Some people have a perception that, yuck, I don't want to take care of all these old people,” said Brownell Anderson of the AAMC, a physician education advocacy group. “That's the perception we're trying to change.”

Nevertheless, the impending senior boom is why CMU’s new gerontology degree programs are all the more necessary.

“It's going to be enormous,” said Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. “You can’t imagine how big this is going to be.”

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