Guide to College Majors in Gerontology

Sure I'm for helping the elderly. I'm going to be old myself someday.
--Lillian Carter, in her 80s

What Is Gerontology?

Gerontology is the physical, mental, and sociological study of aging. It includes the study of changes in adults as they age, the ways that society changes with an aging population, and the ways we apply this information to programs and policies for older adults. A degree in gerontology prepares the student for careers working with older adults or as advocates for the elderly.

Gerontology is a diverse field with career opportunities in human services, government agencies, retirement communities, nursing homes, health care, and long-term institutional care. Gerontologists serve as social workers, nursing aids, social scientists, and healthcare managers. Careers for gerontologists are numerous because they include almost any profession in which an older person is cared for and assisted.

Nurses, occupational therapists, and other healthcare providers also benefit from degrees in gerontology. A degree in gerontology allows professionals to better understand the problems surrounding their aging patients and how to better care for them. Communication skills are important for gerontologists because they are often responsible for recording and relaying information regarding their client or patient. They must be able to work with a diverse population of people, particularly older adults.

People are now living longer than ever before-and the baby boomers have begun to retire. This growing number of older adults creates an increased need for skilled, educated professionals in gerontology.

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Career Education in Gerontology

College degrees in gerontology are available at all educational levels, from undergraduate certificates to PhD programs. Nonclinical programs such as long-term care administration are available online.

Undergraduate Certifications in Gerontology

These are ideal for students seeking entry level positions working with older adults. These jobs include entry-level positions in nursing homes, in senior day care centers, or in the homes of private clients. A high school diploma is required to enter an undergraduate certificate program. These short courses of study usually include four to 10 courses such as Introduction to Gerontology, Communication and Aging, and Psychological Aspects of Aging.

Associate Degree in Gerontology This is a two-year program that includes general education courses and courses specific to gerontology. The associate degree prepares you for an entry-level career in gerontology, advancement in your current career, or a bachelor's degree. Most programs now require associate degree candidates to complete internships.

Bachelor's Degree in Gerontology

Students earning a bachelor's degree in gerontology are prepared for entry- to mid-level positions working with older adults in a variety of settings. Bachelor's degrees in gerontology typically take four years to complete and require an internship. Courses in gerontological studies are required in addition to general education courses such as algebra, biology and sociology. Online bachelor's degrees in gerontology focus particularly on nonclinical aspects of the field, such as communication, policy, advocacy and social services. Online students may often arrange local practica to fulfill hands-on training requirements.

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University of Phoenix, Capella University, & Ashford University

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Gerontology?

A degree in gerontology is beneficial for most careers that provide interaction with and assistance to older adults, making the career possibilities in gerontology numerous. Here are some of the most common professions held by people with degrees and certifications in gerontology.

  • Social and health services assistants work with clients in a variety of environments and assist them with a wide range of issues. Their duties and job titles are numerous and varied. They meet with clients, assess their needs, and help determine what programs or treatments are available to them. These professionals are driven to help others. They exhibit care and compassion to those in need of assistance.

    In a retirement community or adult daycare center, a social or health services assistant may assist clients with obtaining government benefits such as Medicare or Social Security. In other settings, they may be responsible for leading group activities, teaching life skills to clients, checking that medication doses are accurate, and involving clients in recreational activities.

    Social and health services assistants are often hired without a college degree, but some specialized education and work experience is preferred. An undergraduate certificate or associate degree is usually sufficient for obtaining a job in this field. Advancement as a social or health services assistant may require a bachelor's degree in social work.
  • Social Worker. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers "help people function the best way they can in their environment, deal with their relationships, and solve personal and family problems."

    Most social workers specialize in one area, such as research, child services, or gerontology. A social worker with a degree in gerontology usually specializes in assisting older persons and their families. They may provide support for adult children of older parents, teach classes for caregivers of aging parents, and provide advice on housing and long term care options. In healthcare environments, social workers that specialize in gerontology may assist family members of Alzheimer's patients or help coordinate home health services.

    Social workers are found in hospitals, family and government agencies, and nursing homes. They must have excellent communication skills and the ability to work with diverse populations. Social workers often assist clients dealing with stressful situations and must exhibit sensitivity.

    Social workers are typically required to have a Bachelor of Social Work degree, though a major in psychology or sociology may be sufficient for an entry-level career. Graduate degrees or continuing education courses are usually required for advancement and higher-level positions. All states require social workers to be licensed, though requirements vary among states.

    Careers in social work are expected to grow more quickly than average. Because of the fast-growing elderly population, more gerontologists are needed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that these specialists will have the best job prospects of all social workers over the next few years.
  • Nursing and Home Health Aides. Nursing and home health aides are responsible for people who are physically or mentally ill or injured. Nursing aides usually work in hospitals, nursing homes, or mental health facilities. Home health care aides work in their patients' homes.

    Geriatric aides assist their clients with meals, keep patients' rooms tidy, and help with personal hygiene needs. Home health aides have similar duties. In addition, they may administer medications and assist with medical equipment, such as ventilators. Home health aides are usually supervised by a social worker or nurse.

    Nursing and home health aides often work independently, with little supervision. They must be conscientious and responsible, especially when working in patients' homes. Nursing and home health aides should enjoy working with older adults, and assisting them with routine activities.

    Nursing and home health aides are sometimes hired with only a high school diploma, though education and experience beyond high school are valued. Nursing and home health aides are often expected to complete a training program upon being hired. For nursing aides, this training program leads to certification and placement on the state registry of nursing aides. Home health care aides are expected to complete a training program and a federally mandated competency examination.

    Jobs as nursing and home health aides are expected to increase faster than average over the next few years. Careers for home health aides are expected to grow more rapidly than others due to patients' desire to be treated at home.
  • Health Care Professionals. Health care professionals treat disabled, ill, or injured people to improve or maintain their health. Doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, physicians' assistants, and nurse practitioners are examples of health care professionals.

    Healthcare professionals are compassionate and have a strong desire to help others. Good written and oral communication skills are important for healthcare professionals, especially those responsible for keeping patients' records current and accurate. Healthcare professionals typically possess a bachelor's degree or higher in their field. A degree in gerontology can be beneficial to these professionals by educating them on aspects of the aging population. Healthcare professionals with degrees in gerontology may work in nursing homes, hospitals, physicians' offices or home healthcare situations. With education and experience, they may advance to become health services managers.
  • Medical and Health Services Managers. Medical and health services managers are responsible for the planning, administration, and supervision of health care services. They are employed in a variety of medical centers, including hospitals, doctors' offices, and nursing homes. Medical and health service managers may manage a department in a healthcare facility or the facility itself.

    In small facilities, the manager is responsible for daily operations including personnel issues, accounts payable and receivable, and admissions. In larger facilities, they create policies and procedures and ensure that they are carried out effectively. Managers of larger facilities help develop and manage budgets and evaluate employees.

    Medical and health service managers' duties require them to have competencies in many areas. Skills in management and finance are as important as those in communications and interpersonal relations. Experience in the healthcare field is usually required.

    Medical and health services managers typically have master's degrees in healthcare administration, but a bachelor's degree may be sufficient for positions in smaller healthcare facilities. A degree in gerontology is helpful for the medical or health services manager seeking employment as administrator of a nursing home, retirement community, home health care organization, or other facility for the aging population. Advanced degrees in healthcare management or public health administration increase opportunities in this field. The best candidates in this field will possess both work experience and applicable education.

    Medical and health services management is expected to grow faster than the average over the next few years. Particularly, home health care is expected to grow rapidly, and the need for home health care managers will expand with it.
  • Social Scientists. Social science is the study of human behavior, past and present, and relationships between individuals and groups. Social scientists conduct research through interviews, surveys, historical analysis, and experimenting on subjects in laboratories. This research provides the scientist with information about how people handle changing environments, relate to others in a group, and make decisions.

    A social scientist with a degree in gerontology would likely work as a sociologist, studying the behavior of older adults. Sociologists are interested in how age affects older adults' ways of life and the ways that they relate to society and one another. The information obtained by this research may be used to help create public policy or create solutions to social problems.

    Because social scientists often are expected to write and publish research findings, written communication skills are important. Social scientists also possess excellent oral communications skills needed when gathering information from subjects for research. Social scientists are inquisitive and methodical.

    Entry-level social scientists may possess a bachelor's degree in one of many fields, including anthropology, psychology, sociology or gerontology. Advancement as a social scientist usually requires an advanced degree. Completion of a master's degree will afford the best opportunities for gaining employment in this field. A PhD is standard for positions at colleges and universities.

    Job growth in social science is expected to be average over the next few years. In particular, sociologists are expected to have good opportunities in government organizations and social services agencies performing policy research.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Gerontologists can seek careers in many fields. Each specialty has its own licensure and certification requirements. Requirements for licensure also vary from state to state and from employer to employer.

Occupations in the healthcare field typically require certification or licensure. Nursing aides are often employed by nursing homes, which require completion of a minimum of 75 hours of training and an examination. Upon completion of this program and examination, nursing aides are considered certified and entered into the state registry of nursing aides.

Home health aides are required by federal law to complete a competency exam that tests skills in 12 areas related to home health care. Aside from the examination, training supervised by a registered nurse is usually required. Training programs for home health aides vary from state to state.

Social workers are also required to be licensed or registered by the state in which they practice. State requirements vary, but most state standards emphasize ethics, communication, and cultural diversity.

Other Associations and Certification Bodies

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