As the US population ages, the demand for healthcare tailored to the elderly increases concomitantly. Healthcare practitioners specializing in gerontology, the branch of medical science that deals with diseases and problems specific to the elderly, are the providers who fill that need. Gerontologists help elderly people lead active lives, remain in their homes and receive healthcare that is attuned to their unique requirements.
While the healthcare system has long treated older people similarly to other adults, research shows that their needs are actually quite distinct. Gerontologists receive advanced clinical training in geriatrics, a field that includes study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging. Specialization or certification in gerontology is possible in many disciplines, including internal and family medicine, nursing, social work, pharmacy, physical and occupational therapy, nutrition and dentistry.
Gerontologists often care for the same patients over many years, helping them to maintain functioning, contribute to their communities and enjoy the people and activities they love. Because team-based care of the elderly is a growing trend, these professionals also establish close, collegial relationships with healthcare providers from across all disciplines. This gives them the added satisfaction of solving complex problems with collaborative solutions that best serve their patients.
Gerontologists work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinical practices, counseling centers, hospice services, home health services, research universities and community and government agencies. Some also manage or serve as consultants to healthcare facilities or private companies geared to the needs of older people. They often travel to treat patients at home, assess living conditions and meet with caregivers and family members.
Over 500 universities, colleges and career institutes offer formal training in the science of aging. The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE), a part of The Gerontological Society of America, notes that the field can be studied at many levels. 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.
Most health professions' training programs include extensive clinical training.
Family and internal medicine physicians who wish to specialize in geriatrics must complete a 1-2-year fellowship in the field. Other disciplines also offer advanced training and research opportunities, such as the Hartford Doctoral and Post-Doctoral Fellowships for geriatric nurses.
Licensing and/or Certification
Gerontologists are subject to the licensing and certification rules governing their primary profession. In some disciplines (medicine, for example), candidates must obtain board certification or meet education and experience requirements before practicing as gerontologists.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
First and foremost, gerontologists must have genuine interest in and empathy for older people. Excellent verbal and listening skills coupled with a good dose of patience helps these professionals communicate effectively with patients who have difficulty hearing, speaking or understanding. Because gerontology is a multidisciplinary field, candidates should like the idea of working closely with other professionals to solve problems and manage care. A curious mind and an aptitude for statistics are assets when conducting research.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced gerontologists may be promoted to supervise the work of others as managers or administrators of healthcare facilities. Those who demonstrate academic success by publishing papers and winning research grants may be appointed to head academic departments. Many practicing gerontologists are also active in professional groups and task forces that advocate for the field on a national level.
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The earnings of gerontologists vary widely, depending on discipline, experience level and geographic location. Average yearly salaries in the profession range between $53,000 and $80,000, while new professionals start between $42,000 and $66,000. Experienced gerontologists can expect to earn a minimum yearly salary of $64,000.
World War II was followed by a huge uptick in birth rates, giving rise to the Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964. As this generation begins to retire, there will be rapid growth of the US elderly population through at least 2029. Baby Boomers are expected to enjoy relatively long lifespans compared with their predecessors, and some of them are expected to live into the 2050s. Taken together, these facts suggest excellent job prospects for gerontologists that should extend into the foreseeable future.