In this article:
What is a Gerontology Degree?
Gerontology is the study of aging. Students who pursue a gerontology degree learn about the physical, mental, emotional, sociological, and economic aspects of aging. The field explores the ways that adults change as they get older, how an aging population impacts society as a whole, and designing social policies and programs for the elderly.
Gerontology degree programs address these subjects:
• Historical and contemporary aging trends
• Ethnicity, culture, and aging
• Gender differences in aging
• Social support and advocacy
• Caregiver stress
• Aging and neglect of seniors
• Related government and legislation and public policy
• Seniors housing / transition from independent to dependent living
• Aging and mental and physical health changes
• End-of-life issues / the grieving process
• Pharmaceuticals and interventions
Associate Degree in Gerontology – Two Year Duration
Gerontology degree programs at the associate level are made up of both general education classes and basic gerontology specific courses. The curriculum typically focuses on the aging process, injury prevention, and human services for the elderly. Programs prepare students for entry-level/junior positions in the field, such as nursing home caregiver. In many cases, graduates with this associate degree go on to complete further studies at the bachelor’s level.
Bachelor’s Degree in Gerontology – Four Year Duration
Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Gerontology generally qualify for a wide array of careers, ranging from case manager to community health worker, social worker, recreational therapist, and healthcare administrator.
At the bachelor’s level, gerontology degree programs cover both the science of aging and the practical aspects of elder care, including nutrition, physical activity, and independence. These are some sample courses:
• Introduction to Gerontology – developing an understanding of being old, communicating with and advocating for the elderly
• Biology of Aging – the effects of aging on the human body’s tissues and cells
• Mental Health and Aging – psychiatric disorders common in later life, assessing and treating patients
• Optimal Aging – examination of theories on aging; influencing factors like personality, culture, spiritualty, sexuality
• Physical Activity and Aging – fitness for the elderly, the physical and psychological effects of exercise on older adults
• Gender and Aging – the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of aging, from the male perspective and from the female perspective
• Ethnogerontology – aging from an ethnic perspective, family and cultural influences
• Food and Nutrition for the Elderly – the changing nutrition needs of the aging adult
• Gerosex – sexuality in later life
• Dementia – different forms of dementia and caring for dementia patients
• End-of-Life Care – palliative and hospice care, helping older adults face their own death
• Research Methods in Gerontology – theories and methods of research
Master’s Degree in Gerontology – Three Year Duration
Students who complete a gerontology master’s program qualify for executive level positions in the field. These include roles as senior administrators and directors of services for the elderly.
The gerontology master’s degree curriculum normally requires that students complete a research-based project or a thesis on a topic related to aging. Options may include:
• A critique of theoretical and research literature on a specific subject related to aging
• A grant proposal that includes a review of related literature as well as methodology
• Evaluation of an existing intervention program or presentation of a new one
• Analysis of a specific policy on gerontology
In addition to the research project or thesis, master’s students in gerontology programs must complete a combination of core courses, elective courses, and an internship.
Core courses always cover:
• Techniques for Research in Gerontology
• Qualitative Methods in Gerontology (participant observation, in-depth interviews, and focus groups)
Electives may include:
• Advanced Theories in Gerontology
• Community Housing, Health, and Support Services for the Elderly
• Institutional Living
• Mental Health and Illness in Later Life
Some schools may not require students with relevant work experience in the field of gerontology to complete an internship.
Doctoral Degree in Gerontology – Four to Five Year Duration
Doctoral degree programs in gerontology prepare students for high-level roles as sociologists, university professors, and researchers. Courses often focus on the same areas as those listed above in the Master’s Degree in Gerontology section. In doctoral programs, however, students receive advanced training in research and statistical techniques that can be applied to practice and policy development.
In addition to coursework, doctoral candidates are required to take one or more examinations and to complete a dissertation. Here are some sample dissertation topics in the field:
• The Aged Brain: the Biological Base of Dementia and Alzheimer’s
• Treating Geriatric Depression
• Elder Abuse and the Law
• How Older People Cope with Advancing Technology
• Defining Successful Aging
Degrees Similar to Gerontology
Degree programs in healthcare administration prepare students to manage the business aspects of medical facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and private practices. These programs provide training in basic medical and health knowledge and terminology, as well as in the clerical tasks of maintaining patient medical records, managing billing, and overseeing staff.
Degree programs in occupational therapy focus on helping patients adapt to loss of function by improving their fine motor and cognitive skills.
Physical therapy majors learn how to treat patients for whom movement has become strained or limited due to injury, illness, or aging.
Public administration degree programs teach students how to make and direct policy at various levels of government. These policies can involve a wide spectrum of public concerns, from healthcare to social programs to the environment. Typical courses for public administration students include community analysis, economic development, grant writing, local politics and administration, organization theory, public budgeting and financial administration, public policy, structure of government, volunteerism and the non-profit sector.
Pre-med programs, designed to prepare students for medical school, include courses in general biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, and physics.
Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Social workers work with the mental, emotional, and behavioral issues of individuals from every walk of life.
Skills You'll Learn
Assessment and Report Writing
Gerontology involves tracking, assessing, and recording client progress. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.
Communication and Interpersonal Skills
Gerontologists are consistently called upon to interact, to listen, to understand, and to present possible solutions to their patients and their patients’ families.
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Gerontologists have to deal with their elderly patients’ medical, emotional, social, and financial problems. Therefore, the ability to assess situations and think critically to find solutions is a significant part of this kind of work.
Cultural Awareness / Appreciation for Diversity
Gerontologists are exposed to people from different backgrounds and home environments. They must work effectively with people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender backgrounds.
Empathy and Compassion
The capacities to empathize and show compassion are especially needed in this field, because gerontology professionals often work with people in stressful situations.
Patience and a Sense of Humor
The work of helping elderly people cope with their challenges is not easy work. And it is not fast work. The role calls for patience, for an appreciation of small victories, and sometimes, even for a sense of humor.
Working with people with various backgrounds and problems requires building trust. Clients have to feel safe and supported if they are to share their burdens and accept help.
What Can You Do with a Gerontology Degree?
Gerontology graduates can apply their knowledge and expertise in the area of aging in a wide variety of work environments:
• Academia / Research and Teaching
• Adult Day Care
• Assisted Living Communities
• Elder Advocacy Groups
• Case Management
• Community Organizations
• Elder Law
• Government Departments and Agencies (examples: Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, California Department of Aging, Los Angeles Department of Community and Senior Services)
• Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs)
• Long Term Insurance Companies
• Mental Health Agencies
• Nursing Homes / Long-term Care Facilities
• Organizations (examples: American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Alzheimer’s Association, American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, National Institute on Aging)
• Pharmaceutical Companies
• Religious Organizations (example: Jewish Family Services)
• Retirement Communities
• Skilled Nursing Facilities
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