By Susan Rowell, MS, CSA
DECK: As society ages, people are increasingly collaborating across generations to transform careers and higher education.
As the majority of us have heard by now, the baby boomers will have all turned 65 years of age by 2030 (Wince-Smith, 2022). Around the world, adults are living longer and staying healthier. This creates a challenge in many ways, not the least of which is having enough educated professionals available to assist this aging population in the myriad of ways that will be needed, such as higher learning, health, travel, and career.
As people age, our perceptions of them, and of their ability to contribute to society, change. What are your perceptions? Our Western culture tends to assign more value to young people. This stems from Protestant values, where the ability to work and be a productive member of society is important (Weintrob, 2022). This stereotype can lead to ageism, which is discrimination or unjust treatment of older people (National Center to Reframe Aging, 2021). The negative view of aging, and of older adults, is not just a problem in Western cultures. When researchers studied the views on aging of 3,000 college students from 26 different cultures, the consensus across all cultures was that, as we age, we become less physically attractive and less able to perform everyday tasks and to learn new things. However, the consensus was also that older adults gain knowledge, wisdom, and respect (Weintrob, 2022).
Of course, older adults do contribute many benefits to the younger population in the form of life experience, guidance, and mentoring (Gerontological Society of America [GSA], 2019). And these days, older adults are working and contributing for extended periods of time. In fact, seven out of 10 Americans who are ready to retire soon state that they plan to work during their retirement (GSA, 2019). In our new reality of aging, how do we help position everyone at an advantage—both older and younger adults?
Changing the Narrative
One way is to change the way that Western culture views older adults. Today, a number of organizations and initiatives are taking action and changing the narrative about older adults’ role in society. The Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are both working to change the negative, commonly-held beliefs about aging in order to reflect more positive attitudes.
The GSA supports the National Center to Reframe Aging and its Reframing Aging Initiative (www.reframingaging.org), which aims to counter ageism and aging perceptions. AARP’s Disrupt Aging initiative (www.aarp.org/disrupt-aging) works to alter common descriptions of aging in order to create positive attitudes. One way they do this is by changing the words society uses to talk about aging. For example, instead of using words such as “tidal wave” and “silver tsunami” to describe the aging population, try “living longer and healthier lives.” Instead of “seniors” or “the elderly,” try “older adults” and inclusive terms such as “we” and “us.” Instead of making a generic appeal about the need to “do something” about aging, share information about community resources that are already working to make a difference in the lives of older adults (National Center to Reframe Aging, 2021).
Older adults are making an impact through service with programs like AARP’s CoGenerate (cogenerate.org). This organization hosts online and in-person events like intergenerational networking, funds an Innovation Fellowship for people of all ages working to address social problems, and matches older professionals with nonprofits to help increase impact and build strong intergenerational teams. The program enriches the lives of both older and younger participants.
Another program, Senior Corps (www.nationalservice.gov/programs/senior-corps), also matches older adult volunteers with organizations that are dedicated to helping others through academic tutoring, caregiving, disaster relief, and other civic opportunities. Both of these organizations offer ways in which older adults are viewed as healthy, active, productive members of society.
Older Adults and Higher Education
Many older adults view retirement as a new chapter in life, and more retired people are re-entering the workforce (Bunker, 2022). The reasons for this are many, such as a new purpose, increased income, time to pursue a lifelong passion, and giving back. In another trend that is perhaps related to the trend of new later-in-life careers, there are also more and more older adults enrolling in colleges and universities. Adults 50 and older make up a little over 3% of the U.S. student population in higher education, and that percentage is expected to rise (GSA, 2019; National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). Some of the mutual benefits of older adults in higher education include:
- A heightened awareness by the faculty of the needs and expectations of older learners
- Consideration of the adaptations needed to support older adults, which can benefit everyone on campus
- Opportunities for older adults to learn about, and receive support for, a second career
- Identifying trends in experiences, motivation, and expectations (GSA, 2019).
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (osherfoundation.org) provides grants to universities across the United States that offer older adults free or subsidized programs.
As more older adults enter colleges and universities as students, higher education institutions are also allocating more resources than ever to the study of aging. Initiatives such as Washington State University’s Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living (business.wsu.edu/departments/hospitality/institute-for-senior-living/) offer students, faculty, and researchers opportunities to become more age-friendly with new approaches to teaching, research, and community engagement. These new approaches are important because the aging population is changing how the world looks at consumers in regard to technology, travel, entertainment, urban planning, home design, and more.
Opportunities for Younger Generations to Engage
As thoughts about aging change and the population of older adults grows, what are some opportunities for the younger generation? The short answer is that the opportunity is great—but younger students aren’t yet taking full advantage. According to the GSA (2019), fewer than 3% of medical school students select electives about aging, and under 1% of nurses are certified as gerontological nurses. Further, only 4% of social workers have completed geriatrics training, despite the fact that 75% of social workers serve older adults. In addition, only 1.2% of psychologists specialize in geropsychology, even though one in four older adults will experience a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, or substance abuse (Novotney, 2018).
Other career possibilities in the growing aging market include administration (aging services, human services); financial and legal services (fraud prevention, fiduciary, career planning); health care (alternative medicine, art therapy, senior living communities); and fitness/wellness (hydrotherapy, wellness coach, fitness trainer). Jobs with faster-than-average growth between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, include home health aide (37%), occupational therapy assistant (33%), and physician assistant (31%; Newman, 2020).
As we reimagine what aging looks like in society, innovations and new careers will emerge. For example, fashion design is another aging market opportunity. Older adults can face challenges with dressing such as difficulty with managing buttons (due to arthritis or essential tremors). Parsons School of Design at The New School (www.newschool.edu/parsons) and AARP partnered to work with fashion design students in the Disrupt Aging Design Challenge (GSA, 2019). During this challenge, students worked with people of various ages to learn about their needs and abilities related to getting dressed and making clothing choices. They created clothing that offered more options for people who experienced dressing difficulties. During this challenge, the students came to understand aging stereotypes, human-centered design processes, and the effect of aging on future career paths in clothing design.
The Need for Training
More education and training in the field of gerontology will go a long way toward providing better care and support for older adults, and it will help people to understand the aging process better. This understanding will be needed across multiple industries and those with a nuanced view of aging will be better poised for success in the years to come. To this end, the Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE) aims to foster the commitment to higher education and the field of aging through research, education, and public service.
The Age-Friendly University (AFU) movement started in 2012 at Dublin City University in Ireland (www.dcu.ie/agefriendly). The interdisciplinary team that founded the AFU included educators, administrators, researchers, and partners from the community. The AFU initiative aligns with the AGHE in order to promote higher education in the field of aging. Dublin City University’s initiative includes six pillars of activity (GSA, 2019):
- Teaching and Learning
- Lifelong Learning
- Research and Innovation
- Intergenerational Learning
- Encore Careers and Enterprise
- Civic Engagement
As of 2019, more than 50 institutions comprised the Age-Friendly University global network, and its members continue to grow in the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond. These institutions are called upon to focus more effort on aging and access. Further, the institutions that endorse AFU principles commit to them as a broad initiative throughout campus programming and culture.
Another focus on more age-friendly training is in health care and psychology. Age-Friendly Health Systems is an initiative of the John A. Harford Foundation, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), the American Hospital Association, and the Catholic Health Association of the United States (IHI, 2023). Age-Friendly Health Systems works toward educating more specialists and training all psychologists and healthcare professionals on the needs of older adults (Novotney, 2018). Becoming Age-Friendly means implementing the 4Ms of Age-Friendly Health Systems: Mobility, Medication, Mentation, and What Matters to older adults. Learn more about these evidence-based measures at www.aha.org/center/age-friendly-health-systems.
In summary, by working to change the way we all view aging and older adults, and by changing the way we talk about aging and older adults, we will change attitudes, which will in turn advance policies and programs that support us all through every stage of life.
Susan Rowell, MS, CSA, has worked in the senior living industry since 1987. She has been a Caregiver, a Life Engagement Director, and a Licensed Nursing Home Administrator. She is currently the Community Relations Director at Quail Park of Lynnwood in Washington state. She has published books, articles, and a blog about issues that affect seniors and older adults. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bunker, N. (2022, April 14). ‘Unretirements’ continue to rise as more workers return to work. Hiring Lab. https://www.hiringlab.org/2022/04/14/unretirements-rise/
Gerontological Society of America. (2019). Shifting perspectives about aging populations. What’s Hot. https://www.geron.org/images/gsa/documents/WhatsHotAgeFriendly.pdf
Institute for Healthcare Improvement. (2023). What is an Age-Friendly Health System? https://www.ihi.org/Engage/Initiatives/Age-Friendly-Health-Systems/Pages/default.aspx
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Table 303.45. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level of enrollment, sex, attendance status, and age of student: 2013, 2015, and 2017. Digest of Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_303.45.asp
National Center to Reframe Aging. (2021). The story of reframing aging. https://www.reframingaging.org
Newman, R. (2020, August 14). Careers working with the elderly. Student Training and Education in Public Service. https://www.publicservicedegrees.org/careers/working-with-the-elderly/#
Novotney, A. (2018, December). Working with older adults. Monitor on Psychology, 49(11), 60. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/12/working-older-adults
Weintrob, G. (2022, January 22). Aging around the world. Colorado State University. https://www.research.colostate.edu/healthyagingcenter/2022/01/28/aging-around-the-world/
Wince-Smith, D. (2022, February 25). Bracing for the silver tsunami. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/deborahwince-smith/2022/02/25/bracing-for-the-silver-tsunami