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Gerontologists in Demand, but Degree Programs Languish

FSPH alumna and Community Health Sciences Adjunct Professor Janet C. Frank discusses the need for more specialists in elderly wellness as the number of retired individuals in the U.S. swells.
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Date: 
Monday, May 5, 2014
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Academic gerontologists are sounding an alarm: As more Americans reach old age, universities are not producing enough specialists to meet their needs.

In recent years, programs such as those at Appalachian State University, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and San Diego State University have been reduced in size, folded into other departments, suspended, or eliminated outright.

Gerontologists say such retrenchment, combined with low enrollments in remaining programs, means that too few graduates are being trained to run elder-­service agencies or to develop social and wellness programs. Nor are they being encouraged to pursue graduate study in gerontology, in such subjects as how best to prevent falls, the reasons elderly people stop driving, and the effects that climate change might have on them.

Meanwhile, baby boomers are beginning to retire en masse.

"We’ve known about these demographics for 60 years," says Janet C. Frank, an adjunct associate professor in community-health sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Fielding School of Public Health, and until recently head of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. But "the dismantling of budgets in higher ed has taken a toll on us," she says, "exactly at the time we should be ramping our programs up and encouraging more people to join the field."

The gerontology association’s leaders hope to invigorate the field by creating an accrediting body within three years. With the blessing of its parent organization, the Gerontological Society of America, the group is seeking comments on the proposal from members as well as grants to hire staff members.

A consistent set of nationwide standards, advocates say, will help college programs grow stronger—drawing more students and becoming less susceptible to cutbacks. Ms. Frank and others also say accreditation will enhance gerontology’s reputation, establishing it as a discipline in its own right rather than a specialty tied to other fields, such as nursing, psychology, social work, and sociology.

Skeptics say that accreditation is not the answer, and that it may present more problems than it solves.

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