The population of older Americans is growing faster than ever. Reports project that by 2030 there will be 72 million people 65 and older in the United States, up from 39 million today. And by 2050, the 85-and-over U.S. population is projected to be 19 million from just 5.8 million today.
Today’s college students will grapple with the challenges created by this older population: rising health care costs, a larger draw on Social Security and private pension programs, and the need for affordable, safe housing. This demographic shift will have impacts on countless professions in America, such as lawyers, health care workers, architects, and financial managers, to name a few.
To give Cornell students a grounding in the issues connected to an aging population, Human Ecology launched a minor in gerontology this year. The curriculum offers a choice of 20 courses in a wide range of disciplines, including design, psychology and sociology, hospitality, policy analysis, health administration, and nutrition—all with an eye on the needs of older adults.
“No matter what our students do, the aging population will be a factor in their careers,” said Nancy Wells, associate professor of design and environmental analysis, who manages the minor. “A minor in gerontology is an enhancement that is relevant across domains and career paths.”
Alison Philbrook ’11, a Human Biology, Health, and Society major, is one student planning on completing the new minor. After Cornell, she plans to attend medical school.
“I want to go into the health care industry. Chances are high that the population I will be serving will be older adults,” she said. “Also, we are all destined to age, and many of us will be caretakers for our parents, so I want to be informed.”
Certificate program expands
The minor follows a gerontology certificate program that the college has offered for nearly 20 years.
Karon Phillips A&S ’04, an English and Women’s Studies major, completed the certificate program in Human Ecology. Since then, she’s gone on to earn a doctorate from the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida. Gerontology classes at Human Ecology reinforced her interest in working with older people and helped refine her interests, she said.
“My passion for the field grew stronger once I was exposed to different research areas within gerontology through my research experiences and coursework,” Phillips said. “I knew I wanted to pursue an advanced degree in aging early in my college career, but the coursework that I took in the College of Human Ecology helped me decide which areas I would pursue further.”
Phillips is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Program on Aging and Care at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Texas, where she conducts research on health disparities, health care preferences among older racial and ethnic minorities, and the impact of health literacy on hospital readmissions among low-income populations.
“There is a strong need for professionals that have a desire to work with and for older adults,” she said. “Preparing for this aging population requires an understanding of how to better serve older adults from all racial and ethnic backgrounds across a vast range of disciplines.”
A truly interdisciplinary
field The transition to a minor is part of a natural evolution that puts a great emphasis on the growing discipline of gerontology, Wells said. And the College of Human Ecology is an ideal home for this program.
“The breadth of the college is really valuable,” she said. “Because gerontology is inherently interdisciplinary, it’s a great fit.”
A new course offered this year as part of the minor, called Operations and Planning of Senior Living and Related Facilities, exemplifies the broad nature of the field. The seminar, jointly sponsored by Human Ecology and the School of Hotel Administration, gives students an introduction to planning, developing, and operating senior living and assisted-living communities. The course is sponsored by alumnus John Rijos, Hotel ’75, co-president of Brookdale Senior Living, Inc., the nation’s largest public senior living company.
More than 60 students from the departments of Human Development, Design and Environmental Analysis, Policy Analysis and Management, and City and Regional Planning (in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning) as well as from the Sloan Program in Health Administration, the Hotel School, and the Johnson School are enrolled in the course.
“It is gratifying to see that many students see the need to understand this area, no matter what their major,” said Brooke Hollis, MBA/Sloan ’78, executive director of the Sloan Program, advisory committee member for the gerontology minor, and lead faculty member for the course. “There are so many different pieces that go into it, including management, finance, real estate, psychology and sociology, community planning, policy, human factors, health care, hospitality, and design.”
The two-credit course is offered as four all-day seminars with guest lectures by executives from Brookdale, Kendal at Ithaca senior living community, the American Seniors Housing Association, Health Care Real Estate Investment Trust, and the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry.
The ultimate goal is to provide students with an understanding of how these communities operate and a broader vision of how to apply hospitality principles in the health care and senior living industries.
“The processes used by the hospitality industry are being incorporated as an important element in the health care industry,” Hollis said. “With the aging population, longer life expectancies, and the population bulge of the baby boomers, serving the hospitality, housing, and care needs of seniors will be a tremendous growth area where people can ‘do well by doing good.’”
Connecting with another generation
The minor also builds on a three-year project called the Living Environments Aging Partnership (LEAP), which brought Human Ecology students together with local retirees to improve environments for older adults.
“LEAP transformed courses that weren’t originally about gerontology and made them about gerontology,” Wells said.
One prime example is the course Textiles, Apparel, and Innovation, where students work with local seniors to design products that improve the lives of older adults. The class is taught by Juan Hinestroza, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design.
This semester, students from architecture, engineering, and fiber science are enrolled. It’s an interactive and collaborative class, which uses the latest technology— including Facebook—to encourage students to share ideas.
Since the course’s inception four years ago, students have designed a winter coat that provides protection from the impact of a fall, a jacket that is easy to put on and take off while sitting in a wheelchair, and winter boots that improve circulation. Many of the design teams file for patents.
While the innovations are impressive, the real magic of the course is when local senior citizens attend class to guide the students’ work.
“It’s a real learning experience to have an 81-year-old sitting next to a 19-year-old—for everyone involved,” Hinestroza said. “The first time they meet, the older people don’t grasp how the younger people think. And the younger people don’t understand the issues the older people face.”
Over several meetings, the students talk with the volunteers about their daily challenges and propose ideas for solutions. “By the end of the semester, the older people realize that the students really care—just in a different way,” he said. “And the students have a much greater appreciation for the challenges of aging. The two groups really begin to see eye-to-eye.”
That connection to older adults is essential in getting students involved in studying gerontology, Wells explained.
“The LEAP program was definitely a spark for many students, or maybe they have an older person in their lives—a grandparent or a neighbor,” she said. “Connecting with older adults helps the students to see them as individuals and want to learn more about their lives.”
For Philbrook, an admiration of people in her life has been a key motivator in pursuing gerontology.
“I come from a culture where respect for elders is very important, so I have always felt respect towards older adults,” she said. “I think that many students feel this way about their own family, but we still do not value the elderly population as a whole. Learning about gerontology has made me realize that as a society we need to change our ideas about aging and make the issues facing the elderly more of a priority.”
- By Sheri Hall