For gerontology specialists, helping the elderly live full lives is a joy

 10/9/2014

CHICAGO, IL (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) Erinn Hutkin, Tribune Content Agency, September 11, 2014 -

"Julie Bach thinks a lot about growing older. But that focus isn't on herself. As an assistant professor of social work at Dominican University in River Forest, Bach trains students in gerontology, the study of aging.

Her resume includes stints as a gerontology specialist at a mental health center and a social worker helping older adults. Bach relishes interacting with the elderly, who offer fascinating lessons in strength and perseverance.

'Older adults are survivors. To reach the age of 80, 90 or 100, (you need) resilience and spunk. Now that I'm older, I have a deeper understanding of what older adults have described to me (about their lives),' Bach said. "They've helped prepare me for my own aging process. I've been blessed to see wonderful role models for successful aging."

At Dominican, Bach, 60, is helping train a new generation of gerontologists sure to do important work.

For those considering a career in gerontology, there are many avenues to explore, Bach said.

'Gerontology' is actually an umbrella term touching on many different professions. One of the largest areas for related jobs is health care. Nurses, social workers and physical therapists who understand the aging process are in demand, Bach said, especially to work with older adults.

Dominican grads who earn master's degrees in social work with a certificate in aging typically find work with Area Agencies on Aging, skilled care nursing facilities, in VA and other hospitals, hospice and senior service agencies.

College gerontology programs range from certificate programs to a Ph.D. in gerontology, but bachelor's and master's degree programs are most common. Some schools offer degrees in gerontology, while others feature only a minor or specialization in the field. Those with bachelor's degrees in business, social work or psychology can complete a certificate to expand their understanding of aging.

On any given day, her job may involve leading support groups, assessing residents' cognitive functioning, educating families and offering a sympathetic ear to patients going through a difficult time.

Working with seniors, especially in a memory-care setting, requires patience, empathy and compassion, Polanski said. She's seen many baby boomers move into Silverado, their bodies outlasting their minds. But the aging process need hardly be bleak or depressing.

'In order to work with seniors, (you) have to believe that (you) can make a difference. At Silverado, we talk often about changing lives for the better. Every day comes with a new set of challenges, but as long as you look at them as opportunities to grow and change lives, you'll be successful in this field,' Polanski said.

Residents are like family to Polanski, and she wants 'to be there for them as much as possible.' This can be exhausting, 'but in the best way possible,' she said.

'I get out of bed every morning and come to work for our residents. It doesn't matter how hectic my day gets; spending time with them is what makes this job worthwhile. As long as I'm helping residents and their families through the aging process, I'll continue to come to work every day.'

Demand growing as baby boomers age

Gerontologists are professionals from a variety of educational backgrounds who work to improve seniors' standard of living by supporting their physical or emotional health and related lifestyle needs.

According to education-portal.com, some gerontologists work directly with older adults as caregivers, advocates and counselors. Others work behind the scenes in such areas as medical research, education, government and administration.

Job titles include:

1. Geriatric social workers

These experts are employed by Adult Protective Services and agencies that handle cases involving seniors whose well-being is at risk due to poor living conditions, income, or lack of support. They meet with elderly clients and their families to establish the level of intervention and assistance required.

2. Life enrichment professionals

These workers design and facilitate programs for seniors at adult day care or residential facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living centers.

3. Personal care aides

They provide assistance with personal care in a client's home. They may dispense medications, bathe and dress patients, cook, shop and drive patients to appointments. Aides with medical backgrounds can provide more specialized physical care.

4. Facility directors

These experts oversee the operation of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and community living centers for the elderly.

Some physicians and nurses specialize in working with older patients. Others with expertise in this area include geriatricians at medical clinics and mental health counselors.

'Gerontology provides a specialist overlay to any profession serving our aging population,' according to the website of the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education. 'Many states are expected to experience dramatic workforce shortages, in existing as well as emerging professions. In addition to health care, demand will be great for qualified applicants to work in financial and legal services, leisure, travel, hospitality, and fitness and wellness pursuits, among others.'

The Gerontological Society of America, in Washington, D.C., fosters 'collaboration between biologists, health professionals, policymakers, and behavioral and social scientists' nationally and internationally to promote healthy aging.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the average salaries for health care social workers at $51,460 in May 2012. Personal care aides earned just $20,830, while medical and health services managers earned an average of $98,460.

Education-portal reported that personal health care aides are expected to see a 49 percent increase in job grown by 2022.

Many universities provide gerontology concentrations as part of social work, psychology or public health programs. Classes in these programs focus on the physical, psychological and social changes that come."

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