Careers in Gerontology
By Joanna Pelletier, allied health world contributing writer
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What are the specialized career options in the field of Gerontology?
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 7 percent of the American population is made up of people between the ages of 65 and 74 (http://www.statehealthfacts.org/comparebar.jsp?ind=2&cat=1). That number is projected to balloon from 35 million to 70 million by the year 2030, creating a higher than normal demand for gerontology professionals who specialize in medicine and preventative health measures. Gerontology professionals work in a variety of fields that address the health, nutritional, financial, and social needs of the senior population. Gerontology careers are often spent working one-on-one with clients and patients. Professionals in the many specialized areas of gerontology are responsible for helping patients regain motor and speech function after physical trauma, teaching healthy eating, exercise or lifestyle habits, as well as providing for the unique medical needs of the elderly.
Individuals who pursue gerontology careers may have good communication, writing, leadership, interpersonal, and verbal skills; they may also possess a strong ability to connect with other people, work under pressure, handle difficult situations with patience and tact, and serve as a friend and leader. It is necessary, then, for aspiring gerontology professionals to be creative, emotionally stable, encouraging, thoughtful, friendly, and level-headed.
The gerontology careers of geriatric nursing assistants and assisted living aides must also fit a set of State mandates before they can fill gerontology jobs working in retirement homes or assisted living facilities. Most States require GNAs and ALAs to be 18 years old and have a high school education or Associate's degree. Like geriatric nurses, GNAs and ALAs are responsible for keeping patients comfortable throughout the day, reporting their observations to the nursing supervisor, and providing therapeutic services when needed.
Geriatric psychology is one of the Gerontology jobs that provide recuperative services to patients with depression, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or severe mental illnesses. These individuals carry a specialized knowledge of how the aging process may cause changes in cognition, and often provide services in a hospital, clinical, assisted living facility, retirement home, or private practice. Their responsibilities may include counseling patients, diagnosing illnesses, and teaching families how to care for loved ones with mental illnesses.
Physician assistants, geriatric nurse practitioners, geriatric nursing assistants, assisted living aides, and geriatric nurses deal with senior issues first-hand in the health care environment, and are usually the first to recognize a patient's need for psychological, nutritional, or therapeutic assistance. These gerontology careers often involve working alone with frail, mentally ill, lonely, or depressed individuals. Professionals who fill these gerontology jobs tend to work longer shifts than most health care professionals. Physician assistants and geriatric nurse practitioners are responsible for writing prescriptions, diagnosing and treating health problems, and referring patients to other health care professionals. Most States require PAs and GNPs to have a graduate degree in their field, take a State licensure and Gerontological Society of America (GSA) exam, and continue their education after they become certified.
Occupational and physical therapists help seniors recuperate after their body experiences trauma, but they focus more on re-regulating the body's motor functions. Occupational and physical therapists hold a strong presence in clinics and hospitals, and may also be permanently employed in retirement or assisted living communities.
Speech pathologists and audiologists may also have permanent positions in hospitals, clinics, retirement communities, and assisted living facilities. Speech pathologists and audiologists help senior citizens maintain normal speech and hearing functions as they age, and help stroke and dysphalgia victims regain normal speech and swallowing function. Speech pathologists and audiologists usually have Master's or Doctoral degrees, and are certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Hatha Yoga, Chair Yoga, and T'ai Chi are quickly becoming facets to senior communities and the field of gerontology because they have proven to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis, chronic pain, emotional stress, and other common health problems. These arts also exercise and stabilize injuries and joint replacements, help seniors connect with themselves or a higher power, and alleviate problems related to depression, death, abuse, low self-esteem, loss and loneliness. A Yoga or T'ai Chi instructor's job, then, is to help senior patients develop on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. Teachers of these arts have practiced for two or more years before seeking certification, and should seek a Bachelor's degree or Master's-level gerontology degree before they begin helping seniors improve their well-being. Yoga and T'ai Chi instructors must be masters of these skills, as they are teachers of mindfulness and personal well-being.
Like yoga and T'ai Chi instructors, Dietitians and nutritionists help seniors live longer, healthier lives. These individuals promote healthy eating habits, teach diabetics how to cook and eat, and plan dining menus for retirement and assisted living communities. Dietitians and nutritionists also work with families with invalid or mentally ill loved ones, creating meal plans, feeding schedules, and catering to their clients' specific needs.
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