What’s it like to be an unemployed dementia specialist?

Shortly said, it’s incredibly frustrating.

By 2015, there are very few people who have not hear of Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. Many people have also had personal experience with a friend, family member, or community member who has developed dementia. Many people are also aware that there are more and more people being diagnosed with dementia, and that there is a growing demand for quality care and services. Most governments specifically announce an increased need for qualified professionals in the area of dementia.

In a time when there is a growing demand for dementia specialists, it is both confusing and counteractive to be unemployed.

In 2014, I finished my PhD in Engineering on Welfare technology and quality of life in dementia care from Aalborg University. Previous to that, I earned my MSc in Applied Gerontology from the University of North Texas in 2004 and worked in dementia care and social services. Since finishing my PhD, I have had 4 internships, worked on starting my own company, done some freelance consulting, co-authored one article that has been published and written 2 other articles (hard to get published when you’re not affiliated with an institution), started writing a book, started this blog, applied for well over 100 jobs, and been to dozens of meetings or interviews. So far, no permanent paid work. It’s not for lack of trying.

Here are what I am finding to be my biggest barriers:

  1. Denmark doesn’t have a gerontology education program, but they do have their own type of education for this field. You can be a Social and Health Helper or Social and Health Aide. Aside from being a nurse, doctor, or (physical or occupational) therapist, these seem the primary routes to working with the elderly and with people with dementia. I do not have this education. The way the Danish system is set up, they like to stick to things they know. So, since I don’t have this background (although I have education well above and beyond the 3 year degree, plus years of experience), Danes are not going to go out on a limb and hire me to work in their nursing homes or other health and social care services if they don’t understand my education and they already know theirs.
  2. Government jobs are nearly impossible unless you have an inside connection. Yes, some relevant to my field are advertised, but I have not even had an interview for any that I have applied for. The ones that I would really want to do (service development, policy advisor, evaluation of services) are not advertised and my emails are often lost in space or politely rejected that they are not hiring right now. I have seen a few internship or student-level positions (read:  little or no pay) working with welfare technology, but have not even made it to the interviews for those. What I learned later, from a Dane, is that I would be overqualified for those positions and they are wanting to pay cheap wages for these jobs – this is most likely why they would hire a student worker than me.
  3.  There are a lot of small and medium sized companies in Denmark. This is great! There are even handfulls of them that work with Assistive/Welfare/Health Technology! They have actually been the most receptive to my emails and phone calls. The majority are happy to meet with me and we brainstorm and discuss similar interests. All of them have been able to refer me to someone else working in a similar field, so I have made the most connections through SMEs; however, the majority of them either do not focus on dementias or they don’t have the funding to hire me for their project.
  4. There still isn’t a lot of money in dementia research. And the institutions and research centers that do have money for dementia research aren’t focusing on my area. The majority advertise positions that focus on biological causes of dementia, pharmaceutical research for a treatment or a cure, and advanced brain imaging. The latter, I would be very interested in, but have no previous experience to even get me in the door. There is the National Research Center for Dementia, whom I have contacted several times. So far, the only response I have had to my job inquiries is that no, I shouldn’t call them, they don’t have any.
  5. My own lack of focus is holding me back. I actually have quite broad interests in dementia, which can make it hard for me to focus on one area and really dive in. I am applying for jobs at nursing homes and hospitals, with the government, in private companies, in public institutions, at universities, consulting for small companies, and so on. To be honest, I would really be happy working in just about any job that allows me to be involved with people with dementia (as long as no physical care is required – I can’t do that anymore after a back injury as a care aide here in Denmark). I have a ton of ideas for service development, research topics, articles or books to write, research projects, policy, social initiatives – but no clear way to bring them to fruition!

So, what’s a gerontologist to do?

Right now, I am still under consideration for a Postdoc with the Center for Healthy Ageing at the University of Copenhagen (fingers crossed!), talking with someone about starting a new social economic company, still looking for other jobs, and seeing if I can get a publisher to take on my book idea(s). In the mean time, I am trying to stay up to date and active in the field and take care of myself. I get tired of saying I am unemployed (I try to dodge this by telling people what field I work in – but it’s hard to dodge when they ask what company I work with…), I am embarrassed that my field is growing and in demand yet I can’t seem to get a job, I am discouraged that I don’t even get called in for interviews, some days it’s a battle not to let doubt creep in and chip away at my confidence (some days that still happens), and I’m also frustrated that there are people with dementia – who I know I can make a difference in their lives – and I am unable to reach them.

The silver lining in being unemployed, is that the future is wide open to me at the moment. I also have the freedom to pursue my own interests at this point, and have been enjoying attending free courses, reading books, painting, watching documentaries, using the beach or parks as my free-range office, and have had time to to crochet gifts for my new niece. The next big adventure is just around the corner. My career could go in any number of directions at this point, and it is exciting to be at the cusp of change. I will keep plugging away, trying to get a job, and keep looking for a new path I can forge to improve the quality of life for people and families living with dementia.

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3 thoughts on “What’s it like to be an unemployed dementia specialist?

  1. Pingback: Exciting work for Doctor Dementia! | Doctor Dementia and the Dementia Adventure

  2. To be honest I don’t like organizations, charities of government bodies at all nor I trust them one bit. They seem to me to be arthritic institutions riddled and run by bureaucracy and self interests. When you look at charities websites such as the Alzheimer of dementia societies you see always the word “Donate” highlighted and that is all they care about. Donations for keeping their charities going and pay the high wages of their bosses or top staff. To them Alzheimer or dementia or cancer etcetera is a business. A friend of mine who worked as an accountant for several charities said to me that if say a cure for Alzheimer or cancer would be found the heads of the respective charities wouldn’t be that happy because they would loose their jobs. I know that it sounds cynical but this is the reality. Nowadays they all talk and praise themselves but nobody really cares.
    Anyway I hope that you get the job that you have applied for, but if not and you keep having no success I think that you should totally change your approach and starting something of your own. For instance you could hire a church hall or any venue and offer therapy classes in whatever you like to groups of people who would like to prevent dementia and Alzheimer or those who are in the early stages. You could also offer your services to old people homes for fees. Or for private patients who can afford to pay. You can also give introductory lectures in libraries, if they have the space, where you could talk to people about Alzheimer and Dementia as you do in your blog in order to get yourself be known and get customers. Once you have started or even before you could ask for a government’s grant to help your enterprise to take off. Eventually If you get it you could hire some people to help you out. This is my approach I believe that if you can work for yourself it’s much better, more satisfying and creative than working for others or to keep knocking at doors that are shut.
    As for publishing a book unless you are well known in the field your chances of finding a publisher are slim. But luckily today you can self publish your books in e-book format with amazon or in paper format still with amazon and it will not cost anything because in the latter case you can order one copy only or a thousand copies. Besides for each copy that you sell you will receive 70% royalties instead of the 10 to 15% from a commercial publisher. If on the other hand you decide to give it free you can do it for 90 days in which case amazon will give you a good promotion but still pay you a sum at the end of the free sale period. If you get such promotion chances are that you will be noticed by publishers interested in the field..
    I’m surprised that in Denmark there is no much promotion for Alzheimer or Dementia because they are very important medical issues of our age so much so that unless they are not addresses they will cripple the National Health that of a country and they will.
    The bright side though is that Alzheimer and Dementia indeed any problems with the aged is an enormous as well as a potentially lucrative field for anybody wanting to start something on their own.

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    • Thank you for your comments and for the ideas – they are really helpful! I have decided to keep applying for relevant jobs and also start to make a plan to work independently in the field (your ideas gave me some inspiration). Thanks also for the info on publishing, I am just starting to look into this, so it’s nice to hear from someone who knows the rules 😉
      I didn’t mean to give the impression that Denmark is not promoting increased funding and work in the area of elder and dementia care – they definitely are, and these were hot topics in the recent elections. The problem, for me, is that they are in kind of a transition zone right now, taking an evaluation of the state of things and deciding where to appropriate money. I am also finding that when these new initiatives get going, they are often already developed or in discussions before they go public, which makes it hard to get a job when they have mostly decided what will be done and who will be doing it. With the recent election and current changes in government, I am writing to the administrative offices and letting them know my competencies, interests, and hoping that they will keep me in mind as they develop new initiatives – or, even better, contact me to help develop them!

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