Gerontology is a special study aimed at understanding the effects of aging on elderly adults. At National University, students can earn their master’s in gerontology online, opening the door to many career opportunities. Gerontology is one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the United States; if this is an area of study that interests you, now is a great time to pursue a career in the field.
Understanding the Study of Gerontology
Not to be confused with geriatrics, gerontology is the study of aging and the issues that arise as a result of aging. While geriatrics focuses mainly on the medical aspects of aging, gerontology takes a holistic approach, combining biology, psychology, and sociology to fully understand the aging process. Gerontology even encompasses the psychological, biological, and sociological effects aging has on an elderly person’s younger family members.
Elie Metchnikoff first coined the term “gerontology” in the beginning of the 20th century; however, it wasn’t until 1940 that James Birren would begin formally developing gerontology as a field of study. Among his most significant findings was his theory of the three types of aging:
- Primary Aging: Birren described this as the natural deterioration of the physical form.
- Secondary Aging: The comorbidities (simultaneous chronic diseases or conditions) that arise as a result of aging, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.
- Tertiary Aging: The cognitive and physical deterioration one experiences shortly before death.
Birren would go on to become one of the first presidents of the Gerontological Society of America, which was founded in 1945. Since the field was officially recognized, it has grown to look beyond the physical aspects of aging, encompassing psychological and sociological elements as well.
Two main types of gerontology are social gerontology and biogerontology. As their names indicate, social gerontology deals more with the social and emotional aspects of aging while biogerontology studies the physical and biological aspects.
Because of the multifaceted nature of the field, those pursuing a gerontology degree can apply what they’ve learned to a number of different career paths. Government workers, medical professionals, nonprofit volunteers, and business executives can all double as gerontologists depending on the industries they serve.
Research is one of the most important elements of gerontology. By carefully researching all aspects of the effects of aging, gerontologists are able to find new treatments, solve critical problems, and extend the life expectancy of the total population. And, as gerontologists continue to find better medical solutions that help extend our life expectancy, they increase demand within their field as people continue to live longer.
What Does it Take to Be a Gerontologist?
Gerontologists can work in a variety of professional roles, ranging from financial advisors and occupational therapists to health care workers and government administrators. As specialists in the issues of an aging population, gerontologists can help older adults and the organizations serving them overcome the obstacles aging presents, possessing a comprehensive understanding of relevant legal and ethical issues as a result of their studies.
While it is not required to get a master’s degree in order to become a gerontologist, doing so will afford you better career opportunities and higher paying positions. Most gerontologists begin with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, nursing, or social work, with a select few going on to complete their master’s.
National University offers a comprehensive program for those interested in pursuing a master’s in gerontology. Through the Master of Arts in Gerontology program, you will be better prepared to provide strengths-based services to the aging population. Intended for mid-career professionals already working closely with the elderly, the program is designed to give you the confidence and skill set necessary to succeed in various workplace settings, including the following:
- Community, human services, and religious organizations.
- Health care and long-term care facilities.
- Federal, state, and local government agencies.
- Retirement communities.
- Research facilities.
- Professional and nonprofit organizations.
- Business and industrial settings.
After receiving a gerontology degree, you can use the skills you have learned to help solve physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges for elderly adults.
Because so much of their work is dedicated to spending time with aging adults, gerontologists must have certain characteristics in order to be successful in the field. Many gerontologists exhibit high levels of patience and compassion and have innately strong communication skills. These are important traits that help you to expertly navigate the generational gap that can sometimes create misunderstandings or place a strain on relationships with the elderly.
In addition to these special characteristics, those interested in obtaining a gerontology degree will need to be exceptionally detail-oriented and consistent. When in the field, those under your care may report new symptoms and it’s important for you to pay careful attention in order to provide them with the care they need. Because elderly adults often live with serious illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s crucial for gerontologists to be consistent as patients can become confused more easily.
One way you can increase your desirability for future employers is by obtaining your master’s degree and completing two years of post-graduate work at a supervised clinical setting. This signals to future employers that you have a thorough understanding of some of the basic elements of elderly adult care, including the following:
- The relationship between mental health and physical disabilities.
- Strong advocacy and case management skills.
- Knowledge of elder abuse and neglect, and understanding of how to report such behavior.
- Complete understanding of legal and ethical limitations.
- Familiarity with available social service agencies and programs for the elderly.
- Understanding of health care delivery systems.
Another characteristic that is helpful for gerontologists to have is creativity. As younger generations transition into an older demographic, new sets of challenges will arise, requiring existing gerontologists to come up with creative solutions. No two people are alike, and what may resonate with one patient may not have the same impact on another. Having a creative spirit will help you to see problems from multiple perspectives in order to arrive at the best solution.
The Growing Demand for Gerontologists
As medical professionals continue to research and develop treatments for age-induced diseases, the population’s life expectancy continues to increase. According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2017 National Vital Statistics Reports, the life expectancy for the current U.S. population is 78.6. What’s more, by 2060 the number of Americans over the age of 65 is projected to grow to over 98 million.
With an increasing elderly population, the need for gerontologists also increases. In fact, workers within this industry are expected to experience faster than average job growth between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and social and community service managers are among the fastest growing industries employing gerontologists at a 24%, 28%, and 18% projected growth rate, respectively.
Because gerontology covers so many different aspects of aging, there are a plethora of jobs and industries to choose from that involve gerontological care. Social and human service assistants are considered gerontologists and only require a high school diploma to get started in the field. Likewise social and community service managers only require a bachelor’s degree to begin work.
Getting a gerontology degree opens the doors to many possible career paths. Choosing to pursue a master’s in gerontology, however, will grant you access to higher-paying positions and more gratifying work. Among the highest-paying jobs for students receiving their gerontology degree are psychologists, sociologists, occupational therapists, marriage and family therapists, physical therapists, rehabilitation counselors, social workers, and medical scientists — to name a few.
Depending on their specific industry, a gerontologist can expect to make a good salary — especially if they’ve received their master’s in gerontology. The following is a breakdown of some of the most lucrative jobs available for those pursuing their gerontology degree:
- Occupational Therapist: $84,270/year.
- Psychologist: $79,010/year.
- Sociologist: $82,050/year.
According to the BLS, California is consistently named as the state with the highest employment level for gerontological occupations. Annual wages in California are also much higher than the national average, with psychologists earning an average $114,860/year versus the $79,010/year national average.
Gerontology Programs at National University
National University offers comprehensive courses in gerontology, giving students the skills necessary for success in the field. The program at National is designed for adult students and working professionals already practicing gerontology, allowing students to obtain an online degree in gerontology with extensive course offerings.
Those interested in getting their master’s in gerontology will need to already have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. In addition, prerequisite courses or related industry work must be completed along with a professional letter of recommendation. Within the Master of Arts in Gerontology program at National University, students attend the following core courses:
- Foundations in Gerontology I
- Foundations in Gerontology II
Other courses focus on issues such as public policy, psychology, counseling, leadership, cross-cultural practices, and bereavement, all within the context of serving an aging population.
Students learn about the importance of age stereotyping in the media; how to help elderly patients overcome physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges; and how to develop a wellness program for older adults that addresses chronic diseases and promotes holistic wellness.
At National University, earning an online degree in gerontology is made simple, with programs specifically designed with the adult student in mind. Rather than overwhelming students with a rigorous course schedule, students are encouraged to take one course per month to better direct their focus and enhance retention. Online tools are used to create and sustain engaged learning communities for students and faculty. And, since the entire program can be completed online, you can further your education in the field without sacrificing your current job or family responsibilities.
In addition to your studies at National, participation in volunteer and extracurricular activities is encouraged in order for you to get hands-on experience in the field. Volunteering at a nursing home or assisted living facility is a great way for students of gerontology to get familiar with how to communicate effectively with elderly adults.
After getting your online degree, it’s a good idea to complete at least two years of supervised post-graduate work in a clinical setting. This gives you even more experience and shows future employers that you’re serious about dedicating your career to the elderly.
In addition to the Master of Arts in Gerontology program, National University offers a multitude of psychology and sociology degrees that can be used as a stepping stone for later specialization in gerontological studies. Below are just a few of the programs that could serve as a prerequisite for entering the master’s program at a later date:
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing – Generic Entry.
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing – RN Completion.
- Bachelor of Science in Public Health.
- Bachelor of Arts in Integrative Psychology.
- Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.
- Bachelor of Arts in Sociology.
For more information about receiving an online degree through National University, use our prospective student portal to contact a student advisor. Here, you can ask questions about available extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities, and find out what course offerings can be applied to your gerontology degree.
National University offers scholarship assistance to students exhibiting excellence. Be sure to check the list of available scholarships to see if you qualify before entering the gerontology program.
Ready to begin your gerontology career? You can get more information by visiting the Master of Arts in Gerontology program page or by submitting an application to National University today.