Careers in Gerontology
There are plenty of people in our communities who need help simply because they are experiencing the effects of aging, whether that's with transportation to a doctor's appointment or grocery store, guidance in making a decision about a serious medical condition, or help finding the needed activities to help them stay emotionally fit and mentally strong. Gerontologists help our country's seniors -- and there are 41 million people age 65 and over in the U.S., according to the Administration on Aging -- by looking at the science of aging. They understand how factors such as race, gender and even social class impact aging, how our bodies deteriorate at specific ages and what types of issues to anticipate, and the kinds of research and programming that can be helpful in improving seniors' lives.
Thirteen percent of the entire U.S. population is now 65 or older, but that number is expected to increase to 20 percent by 2030, reaching over 72 million. People are not only now living longer, but they also are staying more active and expressing interest in health and fitness, continuing education, and even full- or part-time employment. The senior population now accounts for one in every eight persons in the U.S. However, these older people do need help in a variety of ways: 9 percent live in poverty, another 28 percent live alone, and nearly 40 percent have some type of disability, whether related to comprehension, hearing, vision, mobility or another issue. Gerontologists can be the forces that provide the needed types of services and care to seniors or advocates on their behalf for research and policy change.
What degrees are needed to enter gerontology?
Most degrees in gerontology are offered through a school's human services department and labeled as gerontology or gerontology and aging services degrees. You can now find degrees available from the undergraduate to graduate level, including the Ph.D., and, in some cases, as a minor or as a specialization to a graduate degree in human services or a similar field.
In all, there are more than 500 schools offering 1,000-plus credit based programs in aging, according to the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, with many more schools just offering specific classes. However, the field is attracting so much attention that there are gerontology degrees, now offered entirely online, at the undergraduate and graduate level.
The AGHE describes aging as a multidisciplinary field, meaning that it commonly pulls from instruction in three core areas: biology, sociology and psychology. You may find that these subjects are significant components in any gerontology degree you pursue, whether you do so at the undergraduate or graduate level.
A bachelor's degree in gerontology requires you to take general education courses along with classes focused in gerontology. The following may be representative of coursework that you could take within a bachelor's degree program:
- Health Promotion in Older Adults: An exploration into the various health promotion models that exist for seniors and older adults
- Nutritional Concerns of Aging: A look at the nutritional concerns that arise with aging-specific illnesses, such as arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, cataracts and osteoporosis
- Programs, Services and Policies: An examination into existing legislation, such as Medicare and Social Security
Ethics and statistics courses are often a part of instruction, and an internship may be required to complete a bachelor's degree in gerontology. At the master's and doctoral level, your understanding of gerontology may become even more multidisciplinary in approach as you look deeper into theory, sociocultural and scientific factors, ethics, and statistics. You may spend time helping with research, assisting with projects or completing a thesis or dissertation that reflects your own interest in gerontology.
A bachelor's degree in gerontology may open the door to many entry-level positions or prepare you for advancement when coupled with work experience. Those with gerontology degrees may find employment positions in health care organizations, community centers, longer-term care facilities and nursing or retirement homes. Positions in gerontology include:
- Assisted living manager
- Case manager
- Mental health counselor on aging issues
- Wellness director
There may be other career options. For example, with seniors becoming more adept in their computer usage, you might seek and establish the resources to keep them connected in new and useful ways. Pew Research now reports that 53 percent of older adults use the Internet or e-mail and that 70 percent are online on a daily basis. Indeed, one in three seniors does social networking through Facebook while others are online looking for shopping bargains and information on health care issues, according to The Brooking Institute.
A career in gerontology could mean a world of opportunities, such as providing counseling to families and seniors about employment and mental health, arranging intergenerational activities like dinners, dances and movies nights, or even creating opportunities for seniors to learn about wills and estate planning.
With graduate-level degrees, gerontologists may become more involved in research and policy-crafting. This may include obtaining an advanced position in a health care organization, community facility, college, or university, or even becoming an advocate for an aging-focused non-profit or think tank. While no licensing or certification is generally needed to conduct research or work in the field of gerontology, this may not be true for discipline-specific degrees focused in gerontology, such as nursing, psychology or social work.
Gerontologist income potential
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) does not include income and job growth information specifically focused on gerontologists, but does include data for other fields that they may enter, including social work and health services. As of May 2013, the BLS reports the national mean annual wages for social workers as $56,060 and anticipated job growth as faster than average from 2012 to 2022, at 19 percent.
The national mean income for medical and health service managers, also as of May 2013, was $101,340. Job growth is expected to be much faster than average, at 23 percent, due to an expanding senior population and individuals staying more active in their later years. Many other income and job growth details from the BLS may be applicable to your career, too, if you want to work in gerontology but in a an occupation that enables you to become a psychologist, nurse practitioner or even postsecondary teacher.
"A Profile on Older Americans: 2012," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, Administration for Community Living, 2012, http://www.aoa.gov/Aging_Statistics/Profile/2012/docs/2012profile.pdf
Doctoral Program in Gerontology, University of Maryland Baltimore, 2009, http://www.gerontologyphd.umaryland.edu/
Gerontology Specialization, Capella University, School of Public Service Leadership, Accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.capella.edu/online-degrees/masters-gerontology/
Major in Gerontology and Aging Services, University of Maryland University College, 2014, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/bachelors-degrees/gerontology-major.cfm#
Medical and Health Services Manager, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes119111.htm
Medical and Health Services Managers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm
"Older adults and internet use," Pew Research, Internet Project, Kathryn Zickuhr and Mary Madden, June 6, 2012, http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/06/06/older-adults-and-internet-use/
Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211029.htm
Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
"What is Gerontology? Geriatrics?", Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, Accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.aghe.org/500217
"What Jobs and Careers are Available?", Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, Accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.aghe.org/500220
"Why Senior Citizens Use the Internet," Brookings Institute, TechTank, Hillary Schaub, April 11, 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/techtank/posts/2014/04/11-why-senior-citizens-use-the-internet