An American born in 1900 could expect to live 47 years. Today’s Americans can anticipate living
beyond their 75th birthdays.
A longer — and more vital — lifespan, combined with a huge “bubble” of aging Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964, will double the number of Americans 65 and over in the next 35 years. In fact, by 2029, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over 65, and
by 2056, those 65 and over will outnumber people under 18.
Experts say those older Americans also will be healthier than in the past, translating into an almost limitless opportunity for development and delivery of new products and services. And those careers won’t be limited to health care. There will be a need for architects and engineers to design living space for the aging, ergonomics specialists, nutritionists, senior advocates, financial planners and wellness coaches, to name but a few.
To meet that demand, Bloomsburg University expects to add a new multi-disciplinary minor, Aging Studies and Gerontology — not to be confused with “geriatrics,” the study of diseases of the aging — by fall 2016.
Psychology professor Marion Mason chairs the committee that’s spent two years developing the expected minor. She has written a textbook on the subject and teaches Life Span Psychology, Adulthood and Aging and Principles of Gerontology. Her definition of gerontology focuses on positive aspects of aging, rather than physical decline.
“I’ve always been drawn to older people,” she says, noting her parents were in their early 40s when she was born and that she is a Baby Boomer herself.
The new minor, she explains, “pairs well with a number of majors, including psychology, business, social work, nursing, exercise science, allied health, biology and speech pathology and audiology” and will replace a career concentration in gerontology established more than 20 years ago. Where the career concentration attracted just 61 students primarily from psychology, social work and nursing, the minor will draw students from three of BU’s four colleges — Liberal Arts, Business, and Science and Technology — and will expose far more BU students to the growing field.
“I’m so excited about this minor,” Mason says. “It will open students’ eyes to the possibility that almost any major could be intertwined with gerontology.”
Ronnie Evans may well personify the modern senior. An associate professor of sociology, she will turn 70 in August.
Evans, who earned her doctorate in 2004 when she was in her 50s, developed a BU course called Social Work and Issues of Aging. “In any practice our students go into, they are going to interact with aging people,” she says. “Social work is going to be huge in this field.”
She finds many students have false stereotypes about seniors. “I think it’s good for them to see how I’m aging. They see how an active, positive outlook can help.” Her students also interview older friends or family members and create a scrapbook for them as another myth-busting exercise. Many choose field placements in aging to complete their internship.
Mason agrees it’s vital to break stereotypes. “College students generally feel far away from old age,” she says. “It’s difficult for them to connect where they are at 20 to where they’re going to be at 80.”
When she asks her students to brainstorm the term “elderly,” they draw on negative stereotypes, she says. “But when they get personal … a grandmother, for example … they get another picture. It’s exciting.”
Tobey Scharding, assistant professor of philosophy, has been including more issues related to older people in her Medical Ethics class, which draws mostly sophomores.
She believes the study of gerontology has dual benefits. Not only will it help students in their future careers, it will give them a new perspective on aging so they can make smart lifestyle choices as they grow older, she says.
“In an ordinary curriculum, you’re not exposed to a lot of points about aging,” Scharding says. “But it’s part of life. It’s so exciting that we’re making these changes.”
Students weigh in
Senior psychology majors Mary Campbell McCauley and Paige
Michener say their part-time jobs were key to their interest in the field.
McCauley, who interviewed 191 fellow students about their interest in the minor Mason is developing, has provided in-home care since she was in high school. Likewise, Michener has worked in a nursing home since she was a teen.
McCauley found that students generally anticipate older age with the idea that it will be a positive time in their lives. However, the findings also show “one reason some students are not interested in working with older adults is because they will have to face their own fear of death and disability.”
Michener credits Eric Stouffer, associate professor of psychology, and his Seminar on the Aging Brain for directing her career path.
Working with rats in a summer research project, she studied the effects of a high-fat diet on older rodents’ ability to learn new tasks and determined those with poor diets were unable to learn.
“With obesity rising, that could have a huge impact,” Michener says. “I entered Bloomsburg not knowing what I wanted to do, but the research has changed my life. I now have a focus on what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Michener has been accepted to graduate school at Towson University, where she will work with Bryan Devan, who was Stouffer’s mentor, in further research on the aging brain. •
Sue A. Beard is a retired newspaper editor and freelance writer based in Fort Myers, Fla.
Editor’s note: Learn more about Paige Michener’s research project in Bloomsburg: The University Magazine, Winter 2015.