Aging is nothing new to societies; however, the term gerontology was first used in 1903. Contemporary gerontology, as a scientific field of study, began in the early to mid-1900s, with a notable boom after 1990. While those who work with aging adults may be familiar with the term gerontology, it is not widely known in the general public. I thought I would write a bit on what gerontology is and what a gerontologist does.
What is Gerontology?
The word gerontology comes from the Greek word geron, meaning “old man,” and the Greek word –logia, meaning “study of.” Gerontology is different from geriatrics, which is the branch of medicine that specializes in the treatment of older adults – the opposite of pediatrics.
Gerontology is the study of aging, focusing on the biological, psychological, cognitive, and sociological aspects of aging. Gerontologists view aging in terms of four distinct processes: chronological aging, biological aging, psychological aging, and social aging.
- Chronological aging is the definition of aging based on a person’s years lived from birth.
- Biological aging refers to the physical changes of organ systems.
- Psychological aging includes the changes that occur in sensory and perceptual processes, cognitive abilities, adaptive capacity, and personality.
- Social aging refers to an individual’s changing roles and relationships with family, friends, and other informal supports, productive roles and within organizations.
The processes of aging that are covered in gerontology are changes in individuals as they age, how society affects and is affected by aging, and how to support the aging population (advocacy, health and social care, psychological support, appropriate housing, etc.). Gerontology encompasses the following:
- studying physical, mental, and social changes in people as they age
- investigating the biological aging process itself, like muscular, skeletal, and hormonal changes (biogerontology)
- investigating the social and psychosocial impacts of aging (sociogerontology)
- investigating the psychological effects on aging (psychogerontology)
- investigating the interface of biological aging with aging-associated disease (geroscience)
- investigating the effects of an ageing population on society
- applying this knowledge to policies and programs, including the macroscopic (for example, government planning) and microscopic (for example, running a nursing home) perspectives.
What is a Gerontologist?
Gerontologists are professionals who specialize in the field of aging related dimensions of change over the lifespan. There are several different types of gerontologists:
- Research gerontologists conduct research on the aging process (physiological and psychological) and the living environments of older persons in an effort to understand and enrich the lives of elders.
- Applied gerontologists work directly with older persons, communicating with and analyzing individuals, families, and groups.
- Administrative gerontologists use their training and management skills to develop programs and coordinate services that are necessary for services to run smoothly.
What do Gerontologists do?
Gerontologists include researchers and practitioners in the fields of biology, nursing, medicine, criminology, dentistry, social work, physical and occupational therapy, psychology, psychiatry, sociology, economics, political science, architecture, geography, pharmacy, public health, housing, and anthropology, among others. The multidisciplinary nature of gerontology means that there are a number of subfields, as well as associated fields such as psychology and sociology that overlap with gerontology. They provide their services to people in universities, hospitals, nursing homes, senior citizen centers, and the community.
Gerontologists are responsible for educating other health professionals, community practitioners, as well as the community at large about the process of aging and how to age well by giving informative presentations, publishing books and articles about aging and health, and producing relevant films and television programs.
Advocacy is another common responsibility of gerontologists, namely social gerontologists. Senior advocates may act as links between older adults and the world around them. They may help them with the long and difficult paperwork associated with such things as health care or insurance. Social gerontologists also usually work to help dispel some of the myths that surround old age and work to set older adults up with employment, education, volunteer opportunities, or social activities.
Maintaining a high quality of life for the aged population is the focus of those in the gerontology industry. The lives of millions of seniors are changed each year thanks to the research, development, advocacy and direct interaction with the senior community.
How do you become a Gerontologist?
To be a gerontologist, you will need a professional degree in Gerontology – at least a Masters degree. I became a gerontologist by obtaining my Master’s of Science degree in Applied Gerontology from the University of North Texas in 2004.
Many community colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees in gerontology leading to entry-level jobs in the field. Students at four-year colleges can opt to pursue a bachelor’s degree in gerontology or prepare for a career in a related field such as social work, nursing, or medicine. A master’s, professional degree or doctorate is essential for people who wish to practice in certain fields such as medicine and pharmacy, conduct research or teach at the university level.
You can also check out The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE), a part of The Gerontological Society of America, and The (US) National Association for Professional Gerontologists for further information on degrees and certificates offered in gerontology. I believe there are some 500 universities that offer degrees or certificates in gerontology, the majority being in the United States.
With a gerontology degree you can find work in almost any field that involves aging individuals. The most obvious places of employment would of course be retirement communities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and long term care facilities. You could also work in government agencies. Specific positions that you could hold if you worked in this field would include positions such as social workers, social scientists, nursing aids, or healthcare managers. Clearly, there are a wide range of positions that you could obtain just from having a degree in gerontology but you could also add a gerontology degree to another degree to increase your skills in working with an aging population. Nurses and occupational therapists are two good examples of where this degree would be beneficial.
Professionals with degrees or certificates in gerontology use their experience and educational in tandem and apply it to the development of programs, direct care, product development, advocacy and so much more. There are diverse jobs available for those with a passion to serve the elder generation from product development to counseling and everything in between. Demand for professionals from all industries with the specialized knowledge, educational background and passion for the aged is high across a number of professions and is projected to significantly rise in many disciplines.
The practice of gerontology is a science and an art; it’s the intersection of where research and education meet advocacy and care for the elder generation.
For more information, you can read “A Historical Perspective in Aging and Gerontology,” by Patsy R Smith. A chapter in the book The Collective Spirit of Aging Across Cultures, International Perspectives on Aging 9, H. F. O. Vakalahi et al. (eds.). DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-8594-5_2, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. 2014