Public Affairs

Addressing the Needs of an Aging Generation

June 21, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

Many of the CSU’s campuses have degree and certificate programs in gerontology. The importance of this field continues to increase due to the rapid growth of California’s older population. But just what is gerontology, and what does a gerontologist actually do?

The California Health and Human Services Agency reports that California is home to nearly six million people over 60—the largest older adult population in the nation—a total that is rapidly increasing due to the aging baby-boomer population. The CHHSA reports that as California’s population ages, the state can expect enormous changes—affecting its economy, housing, leisure, transportation, health, social services and public resource allocation.

Therefore, gerontology, which studies the aging processes and individuals as they grow from middle age through later life, is becoming increasingly important and makes an impact on healthcare, policies and the overall quality of life for California’s older residents.

Gerontology includes the study of physical, mental, and social changes in older people as they age, as well as the application of this knowledge to policies, programs, disease, and comprehensive care. CSU graduates with backgrounds in gerontology work directly with older persons in program development, direct care, and counseling, but also research aging processes and related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis, plan and administer community programs for older persons, and advocate on behalf of older persons for policy changes.

Policy change is an area where Cal State L.A. Social Work professor and director of the Applied Gerontology Institute Valentine Villa has made an impact. Villa, co-chair of research for the Los Angeles Partnership for Evidence-Based Solutions in Elder Health, took part in developing a program to promote health literacy among older Latinos.

“In general, low-income Americans and racial and ethnic minorities experience disproportionately higher rates of disease, fewer treatment options and reduced access to care,” Villa says. “When you add the element of an aging population, it definitely becomes more of a concern.”

Her research has led to proposed policy changes as well as strategies to reach California’s diverse older population-such as creating more culturally sensitive messaging. A better understanding of the needs of older Californians with increasingly diverse demographics can help policymakers create solutions to critical issues.

CSU gerontology students are also helping to improve the health of older Californians through service and education.

The Center for Disease Control reports that many available services are underutilized by older Americans—the fact that many Medicare beneficiaries do not receive the full range of recommended covered preventative services leads to consequences that not only affect state healthcare, but their lives. For example, the CDC reports that more than 35 percent of Californians age 65 and older do not get a yearly flu shot. However, 85 percent of deaths and 63 percent of hospitalizations attributed to the flu occur in this age group. Education about the importance of a simple flu shot can save lives and money.

Most of the gerontology programs require field experience which includes placement with local and state health-related agencies and service organizations. At San Diego State, students in both the undergraduate and the graduate programs are required to undertake two of these internships. While completing their internships, students work in a variety of organizations that focus on policy development and analysis, service delivery, housing, and general programs that support the daily needs of older people.

As another example, gerontology students at Sacramento State take part in hands-on projects including educating seniors in adult day health care facilities about nutrition and other health concerns, and working one-on-one with residents of nursing homes to address their concerns and ultimately improve their care.

Villa notes that the growth of California’s older population isn’t just an issue that’s going to affect senior centers. She says it’s going to increase the demand for gerontology knowledge in multiple disciplines.

“Right now, 12 percent of California’s population is over 65. By the year 2050, that’s going to increase to 25 percent. It’s going to impact all aspects of society,” said Villa. “It’s inevitable that all CSU graduates, and especially those in applied sciences, are going to be working directly with this population, and (with this knowledge) they are going to be even more prepared to enter the workforce.”