Printed from ABQjournal.com, a service of the Albuquerque Journal
Publication:Special Sections; Date:Dec 24, 2006; Section:Boomer; Page Number:12
Graduate degree focuses on aspects of healthy aging
Classes explore economics, psychology, politics and more
BY JOHANNA KING BURTON For the Journal
Smith begins her introduction to gerontology class with a slide presentation
featuring photographs of her father at various stages in his life — as a child,
young adult, parent and then grandparent.
“What do I love about gerontology? Understanding these people weren’t always old. They were once children and then young adults. They went to school, joined the military, got married, had children,” Smith says. “I love this idea of looking at people who have had a whole life of experiences and not just looking at them at one time in their life.”
Smith is one of several
Smith has spent more than 20 years working with aging New Mexicans. She began her career as a social worker and then went into health care administration of longterm care facilities with a focus on frail elderly. In the early 1990s, feeling that local facilities weren’t really meeting the needs of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, she opened the Cottages of Albuquerque, a 24-hour innovative care facility specifically designed to help people with those disorders.
She sold the Cottages a couple of years ago and went into education, which led her to the Webster classroom for four hours on Wednesday nights teaching the introductory gerontology course, one of eight required classes for the graduate program, the only such program in the state. She also is working on her doctorate degree with a focus on the human development of the aging.
“The face of our elderly population is going to change, to become more diverse,” Smith tells her class on the first night. “We used to have a cookie-cutter approach to elderly care. That’s changing with the baby boomers, who are picky, who know what they want, who are consumer savvy.”
Gerontology is the study of healthy aging, as opposed to geriatrics, which focuses on illnesses and medical care, explains Ellen Driber-Hassall, director of
Webster’s non-clinically focused graduate degree covers broad topics within a business and management framework. To teach the topics, Driber-Hassall says the school reached out to professionals like Smith who have real-world experience.
Several instructors who have signed on to teach for the program also have academic experience in the field of gerontology. Dr. Leonard Stitelman, for example, has taught on the topic for more than 30 years. He will teach Economic Issues for Older Adults.
Stitelman was first introduced to gerontology when he was a political science professor in
He moved to
“The issues we’re facing are absolutely phenomenal,” he says. “This field they call gerontology permeates every aspect of our society.”
Stitelman says his course, which will be offered in the spring, will look at public policies on health care, prescription drugs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Other economic topics of discussion will include retirement, pension plans and working seniors.
“Pension programs are going to hell. Big companies are opting out, saying they don’t have the money,” Stitelman says. “The old days of sticking with the company and getting the gold watch after 30 years are all but over. At 60, we might be working 15 to 20 years more. And if we have to work 20 years more, why not pursue our dream job?”
Other Webster instructors include Tony Esquibel, a nurse practitioner for the
“It’s dizzying how many programs are out there to help folks,” says Driber-Hassall. “What a great deal to have found someone to help navigate a complex and complicated system.”
Carol March is a social worker in private practice who teaches Social Science Perspectives. Like many of the gerontology instructors, March is a baby boomer who will face many of the issues discussed during her classes.
“When we study it, we learn more about ourselves — both as a member of our society and as an ever-growing individual,” March says in an e-mail interview.
She says aging today involves many choices, making the topic of gerontology diverse and complex. “As the life span increases, we can work or retire, we can be more creative, discover hidden talents and abilities, we can experience several careers, and we can explore the world as we explore our own worlds,” she says.
March says demographics support a growing demand for people with knowledge, training and skills to meet the needs of older generations. “With a seeing-is-believing outlook, our youth-oriented, yet aging society demands that we pay attention. Now, having entered the 21st century, we are compelled to learn from and learn more about our aging population,” she says.
Smith presents statistics during her introductory class that back up March’s assertions. She cites U.S. Census Bureau statistics that show the number of elderly people in the
To respond to that growing population, future gerontologists will have to adjust the way they approach a variety of issues, including the emotional well-being of the elderly, says Julie Dunleavy, a licensed clinical counselor who teaches Psychology of Aging.
During one of her Monday night classes, Dunleavy tells her students that among the major psychological issues facing an aging population are loss and grief. “One of the key things that come up with aging adults is loss, loss at every stage of life,” Dunleavy says after a short discussion of the Freudian id, ego and superego. “Death is the ultimate loss of control. Not only is a person gone, but so is a dream, an idea of the future, self-identity.”
Dunleavy has taught counseling courses at Webster since the early ’80s and finds psychology of the aging a fascinating and evolving field. “We haven’t really lived this long before so we really don’t know what happens both psychologically and physiologically.”
The semi-retired, 64-yearold counselor admits there are personal gains to teaching the course as well. “Now that I’m older, I really like mentoring the next generation,” says Dunleavy. “I’m learning from them, too. I’ve been on a learning curve like you can’t believe.”