(Jan. 30, 2018) — By the year 2060, there will be more than 98 million Americans age 65 and older, more than double the number alive today, according to the Population Reference Bureau. While 15 percent of Americans were age 65 or older in 2016, nearly one in four Americans (24 percent) will be part of that age group by 2060.
Pamela A. Saunders, PhD, sees the growth in the aging population as an opportunity.
“We all have parents and grandparents who are getting older,” says Saunders, an associate professor in the department of neurology and the department of psychiatry and a co-founder of the geriatrics curriculum at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “These individuals may need our help, but, at the same time, we have so much to learn from them and they have so much to offer us from decades of life experience.”
Moreover, as the population ages, the eldercare industry will continue to experience phenomenal growth in the service sectors such as health care and social assistance. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the eldercare industry is expected to be the largest employing sector during the next decade,” Saunders says.
For those reasons, Saunders saw a need for a master’s program that would go beyond geriatrics to the study of aging well in today’s society. Now, with collaboration from teaching faculty across the campus, Georgetown University will launch the new master’s in aging & health program this fall.
Aging as positive
Saunders defines “aging & health” as the study of people in culture and society, locally and globally, as they age, focusing on health, wellness, quality of life, economics and public policy.
The program, which takes three semesters, requires 30 course credits and an internship or capstone project and is divided into two concentrations. The health care administration path is for early- and mid-career professionals interested in taking a leadership role by learning about finance, and the organization and operation of health systems.
The other concentration covers health care economics and policy for students who recognize that understanding the older population will be invaluable in a wide variety of careers, including health care, government, finance, marketing, politics and insurance, Saunders says. These students will learn about the behavior of individuals, health care providers, public and private organizations and governments. Some of the courses include policy/politics of entitlements, health care access demand issues and health policy and politics, as well as courses in aging and law and financial management.
In addition to Saunders, core faculty contributing to the program come from Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, School of Nursing & Health Studies and McDonough School of Business.
“There are scores of degree programs in gerontology, which is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of aging that includes the medical field of geriatrics,” she says. “Our program will be different because its scope is much broader, including ethics, psychology, sociality, finance, economics, law, public policy,” she says.
“We are framing the master’s to look at society as a whole and to emphasize aging in its positive light — what older adults can do and offer us as a base of experiential knowledge,” she adds. “Being 65 or older is not what it was 20 years ago.”
Saunders learned from her family that older adults can play a valuable role in the lives of young people. “My grandmother, a master’s trained English teacher, critiqued all my school papers up to and including my master’s thesis,” she says. “She encouraged me to learn more and write better and strive to be a teacher.”
While pursuing her doctorate in linguistics at Georgetown, Saunders wrote her dissertation on “the expression of emotion in the oral life histories of normal and clinically depressed older adults living in a nursing home,” she says. “I was inspired by the collective wisdom these people had to offer. I have been interested in the field of aging ever since.”
Through this new program, Saunders will be able to work with students who share her interest in the field of aging, which is rapidly changing as people are living longer and healthier lives. Society hasn’t yet figured out how to make the most of this change, Saunders says. Current employment practices, public transportation, and housing policies “make it hard for us to stay involved and contribute when we get older.”
Moreover, older adults are not treated as equals in our society, Saunders says. They are marginalized and their participation in society is minimized because of implicit ageism — society “assumes that older people are less competent than younger people. We must confront this injustice,” she says.
As a result, our society is losing out on the “incredible dynamism” that occurs as people gets older, Saunders says. An important theme in the master’s degree program is to “train the next generation of problem-solvers to address issues of ageism and injustice older adults experience in the world today,” she adds.
All in all, she says, the goal of the master’s program is to bring together a community that will develop creative solutions to reduce ageism and provide a social marketplace that will truly make those golden years shine.
“As we age, we gain momentum. More experience and greater wisdom push us forward. That experience and insight add energy and possibility—the ability to contribute to our society’s vitality,” she says. “And with more Americans living longer, this force could power our society to move ahead in new ways.”