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Brenau University offers new degree in the science of seniors

POSTED: March 6, 2009 11:04 p.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Ollie Smith works on a greeting card Thursday at the Hall County Senior Center. As the population ages, there is a need for professionals who understand how to work with the elderly. Brenau University will soon offer a course that addresses that issue.

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Over the next two decades, Georgia’s population of people age 65 and older is expected to increase by 143 percent, to 1.2 million.

But experts say there’s a critical shortage of professionals who are trained to understand the special needs of the elderly.
That’s why, beginning this fall, Brenau University will offer a master’s degree in applied gerontology, the science of aging. The program is based in the university’s psychology department, but it encompasses a broad spectrum of academic fields.

The degree program is expected to attract people who already work in professions such as medicine or social work but want to enhance their skills. To make it easier for them to combine school and career, all of the course work will be offered online.

The program was developed by Bonnie Kin, an associate professor of psychology at Brenau.

“I worked with the geriatric population when I lived in southern California, and I always wanted to start a program here,” Kin said. “I think there will be a lot of interest. Georgia is becoming the new Florida (in attracting retirees).”

She said both Georgia State University and the University of Georgia offer degrees in gerontology. “But their programs are more research and sociology-based,” she said. “There seemed to be a real need for a hands-on program.”

Rather than simply study the elderly, Kin said, graduates of the Brenau program could qualify for jobs such as geriatric care managers or consultants.

For years, the marketplace has focused only on the youth demographic. But as baby boomers reach retirement age, companies are recognizing there is money to be made by catering to the elderly.

And they can take advantage of this trend no matter what product they sell. Gerontology can be incorporated into interior design, for example, with home furnishings that minimize the risk of tripping and falling. It can be part of fashion, with clothing that fastens with Velcro instead of buttons.

Everything from product labels to telephones will need to be made with larger numbers and more readable print.
And even the ways seniors think and feel will need to be considered.

“As people age, they have different psychological issues, different physical issues and disease processes,” said Julie Battle, chair of the psychology department at Brenau.

She said the coursework will cover topics such as legal matters, age discrimination, adjusting to disabilities, coping with death and dying, and how medications affect seniors differently from younger people.

“The courses were developed by current and adjunct faculty in various fields,” Battle said. “It’s a 30-hour program. If you were taking a full courseload, you could finish the degree in a year, but not if you’re working full-time.”

Kin said she will be marketing the gerontology program this spring and summer, getting the word out to people who may want to sign up for the fall semester. She said it’s not limited just to those who want to obtain professional credentials.

“Because it’s online, anybody can choose to take a few courses,” Kin said. “For example, it may be helpful to people who are dealing with older parents.”

Merry Howard, manager of the Gainesville/Hall County Senior Life Center, said she was pleased to learn that Brenau will be offering a gerontology degree.

“I think it’s very much needed,” she said. “There needs to be more education (about aging) from the ground up, starting with our kids. Then maybe there wouldn’t be such a stigma attached to getting older.”

Howard said she doesn’t know how society will handle a greatly expanded elderly population when there already aren’t enough resources to meet the need.

“It’s just overwhelming sometimes,” she said. “We’re growing by leaps and bounds, and my center is too small to serve all the people we have.”



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