Gerontology is the study of aging and the lives of adults, 65 and older. It looks at how to physically and mentally make the most of aging.
But it’s different from a strictly medical approach. Many people confuse it with geriatrics, which is the study of diseases in old age. Gerontology is the study of normal, non-illness-related aging.
What does this field have to offer? Dr. Frances Mills and Dr. Terry Tirrito, both part-time faculty members in Capella University’s School of Public Service Leadership, shed some light on what it is and why it’s valuable.
What is the focus of gerontology?
“Gerontology studies where older people live, what they do, how their family structures work, their social activities—all things not related to illness,” says Tirrito. “It covers a broad base of issues including housing, social activities, exercise, nutrition, and social support.”
Mills agrees. “Gerontology can involve looking at long-term care and newer senior housing options like assisted living. In addition, gerontology can involve many areas of study not necessarily directly related to aging, such as child welfare when grandparents are the people raising the grandchildren.”
Tirrito sees the possibility—and future demand—for partnered degrees. “We’re going to increasingly see the need for people who study psychology or social work to specialize in gerontology. The field has seen strong growth in the past 20 years, and more and more people are becoming interested in it.”
What are possible careers in gerontology?
According to Mills and Tirrito, there are nearly countless possibilities. With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation and the fact that they’re aging differently than previous generations, new roles are opening up.
“Look at senior services,” says Tirrito. “It used to be nursing homes only. Now there are all different kinds of living arrangements for various levels of need, including in-home services that didn’t use to exist. There are financial and legal gerontology services that help people manage their money and protect themselves from fraud. Technology and aging is another new area. We’re dispelling the myth that older people can’t learn how to use cell phones and computers. Yes, some have trouble—but that may be more of a personality issue than an aging issue, as we see it in younger people as well.”
Mills notes, “Gerontology job opportunities will continue to expand and grow right along with the aging population. It’s an ever-changing field that’s going to continue to require new research and new methodology. Plus, interest in this field among non-gerontologists is growing. For instance, medical doctors who want to understand more of the factors that affect elderly health look to gerontology for answers. We know so much more now about how all these factors—financial, social—affect physical health, so we see more interest from organizations that want a deeper understanding of these issues.”
Career opportunities for gerontology graduates are available in settings as diverse as:
- Assisted living and long-term care facilities
- Religious groups
- Legal, financial, and IT organizations
Types of careers include:
- Case manager
- Director or administrator of assisted living or long-term care facilities
- Policy advocate
- Lawyer or financial planner specializing in needs of the elderly
What does it take to succeed in gerontology?
“Compassion,” says Mills. “One must have an interest in helping people who are aging, and not just in a medical way. It’s also helpful to have a desire to learn and a willingness to apply what you learn into your practice.”
Mills also notes that because this field is growing, there are many organizations offering encouragement and financial support. “Don’t let money stop you from pursuing this education. I received a fellowship from the John A. Hartford Foundation that I wasn’t even initially aware existed. Come talk to us.”
Learn more about Capella’s Master of Science in Human Services, Social and Community Services degree.