Statistics and Forecasts

Gerontology Career Profiles: Healthcare

What does Gerontology have to do with the Health and Healthcare fields?

The U.S. population is growing older and more diversified. According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, by the year 2030, 1 in 5 people will be 65 years or older, and about 1 in 20 people will be older than 85. Racial and ethnic diversity among the nation's elders is increasing at a similar pace; by 2030, over 40% the older population will be Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans or Asian and Pacific Islanders. Moreover, Americans are living longer than ever before.

This growing, aging population has increased the demand for health-related services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2004 to 2014, "healthcare and social assistance - including private hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, and individual and family services - will grow by 30.3 percent and add 4.3 million new jobs. Employment growth will be driven by increasing demand for healthcare and social assistance because of an aging population and longer life expectancies." Community and residential care facilities for the elderly represent one of the nation's fastest growing industries, with a projected 45% increase in jobs from 2004 to 2014. Health-related paraprofessional occupations whose clientele will include a high percentage of elderly - such as medical assistants, social and human service assistants, home health aides, physical therapy aides, fitness trainers, personal and home care aides - are among the fastest growing occupations, within the next decade.

The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices 2004 report, Measuring the Years: State Aging Trends and Indicators, highlighted workforce needs in healthcare arising from demographic shifts and the need to prevent and control rising levels of chronic disease. The report also projected that states will face significant shortfalls in the long-term care workforce, particularly among paraprofessionals delivering home and community based services to the elderly.

Why should health professionals and paraprofessionals study Gerontology?

The changing face of aging gives rise to a burgeoning need for a variety of services tailored to the elderly and for a workforce knowledgeable about aging and older adults. The need is particularly great in the fields of medicine, allied health care, long term care in facilities and private homes, and preventive health fields, like fitness and wellness, recreation, leisure, and retirement housing. Meeting the challenges of providing appropriate, responsive, and effective services will require profound changes in the training and education of the health and healthcare workforce.

In the coming decade, most health care professionals will spend at least half their time caring for the older population. According to report, The State of Aging and Health in America 2006, older adults use more healthcare services than any other age group, accounting for half of physicians' visits and half of all hospital stays. In addition, "the average 75 year old has three chronic conditions and uses five different prescription drugs. Older patients also have unique health challenges and different medical needs than younger adults." The report, however, notes a gap between what many healthcare providers know and what they need to know to provide optimum treatment for older patients. Only a small proportion of practicing healthcare providers have formal training in geriatrics, with less than 1% of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and nurses, and only 5% of social workers having certification or advanced training in geriatrics or gerontology. "Overall," concludes the report, "the healthcare workforce lacks the training to provide appropriate care at the present time, and it is wholly unprepared for the graying of America."

Other studies confirm that lack of geriatric knowledge by health professionals and paraprofessionals translates into inadequate healthcare. The Alliance for Aging Research study, Ageism: How Healthcare Fails the Elderly, cites evidence of pervasive ageism in the nation's healthcare system, which prevents older people from receiving optimal healthcare. "Failure to adequately study the effects of treatments on older people and train their healthcare providers only helps to perpetuate the destructive myths that poor health and dependence are just a part of growing older, and prevents providers from seeking interventions that could genuinely improve older patients' quality of life... Proper geriatric care requires understanding not only how to treat specific problems, but ways in which older people are truly capable of living healthy, active lives."

Healthy aging requires more than just good medicine and healthcare. Healthy aging across the life course arises from an engaged and active lifestyle and strong social supports. The MacArthur Foundation Studies of Successful Aging found that the three components of better cognitive and physical functioning in both older and younger people were exercise, social engagement, and a positive mental attitude. Professionals and paraprofessionals trained in gerontology are well-equipped to promote these factors contributing to successful aging. They may be working directly in health and healthcare, but they are just as likely to be found working in community organizations, fitness and wellness centers, and residential settings, engaging elders in recreation and leisure pursuits, social interaction and activities, volunteerism and civic engagement.

What are my career options in health-related gerontology?

Just about every area of health and healthcare will need age specialists, knowledgeable about the aging process and the diversity of lifestyles and needs within the aging population. Demand for entry level paraprofessional jobs - such as nurses' assistants, home health aides, and other front line health workers - is expected to skyrocket in the next decade as the population aged 65 and older reaches over 60 million people. Gerontological certification enhances the career advancement potential of such workers, enabling them to move into long-term care management, community center or residential facility administration, and home and community-based social assistance positions.

Gerontology-trained health professionals in medicine, nursing, physical and respiratory therapy, pharmacology, dentistry, and other allied health fields will fill critical roles in offering older people optimal healthcare.

Unprecedented opportunities for both professionals and paraprofessionals also exist in recreation and leisure, health and wellness education, fitness technology, social work, and all the other areas supporting healthy and active lifestyles that prevent and control chronic conditions and reduce dependency on pharmaceuticals and costly medical intervention.

What are my educational options?

Health Professional Specialization in Aging:
Consider earning a Gerontology certificate or taking the basic Gerontology courses: Soc 230 Introduction to Gerontology, Soc223 Sociology of Aging, Soc231 Health and Aging, and Soc232 Death and Dying. These courses are all general education courses and can fulfill elective credits.
Dual Degrees:
Earning a degree in Gerontology, together with a degree in Fitness Technology, Human Services, Social Services, or Health Education, will prepare you for a satisfying career, serving the aging population in a variety of settings, with good opportunity for career advancement.
Career Enhancement Certification:
Nurses' assistants, home-healthcare workers, adult foster care providers, hospice workers and other paraprofessionals can enhance their career opportunities through a certificate or degree in Gerontology.
Gerontology Degree:
Regardless of your work experience and interests, earning a degree or certificate in Gerontology can be the first step toward a challenging and rewarding career. PCC enjoys articulation agreements with Portland State University, Marylhurst University, and Eastern Oregon University through which you continue your education at the junior level, to earn a BA or MA with a minor or graduate certificate in Gerontology.
Whatever your career goal, PCC's Gerontology Career Management Model, of assessment, intentional internships, and targeted job search as part of a career plan, will provide the tools to launch your health-related career in Gerontology.