Not the Same, Old Story
Fresh approaches in a growing program aid an aging population
“I want to bust the myth that everyone who is old is sick.”
From the moment we are born, we begin to age.
But growing older is not an inevitable path to poor health and declining quality of life. In fact, “I want to bust the myth that everyone who is old is sick,” says Cheryl Osborne, chair of Sacramento State’s Department of Gerontology.
That growing and nationally recognized department is where a sharp focus is placed on aging and how it affects people physically, mentally, socially, and in many other ways. Osborne, a registered nurse, has for 34 years educated students about “ill” and “well” aspects of aging.
Gerontology, which encompasses many disciplines including physiology, psychology, and public policy, has never been more relevant. Demand for specialists continues to increase across the nation as the U.S. prepares for an unprecedented surge of seniors led by aging baby boomers.
“This is the wave of the future,” Osborne says.
And Sac State is at the crest of that wave, providing training, research, services, and momentum to meet challenges presented by a population whose needs are significant and apparent.
Gerontology students are working in the classroom and within the community to develop and hone skills designed to enhance life for people as they age, whether they are physically strong and active or have serious health or cognitive limitations. Sac State students study the aging process “along the life continuum,” Osborne says, and consider its effects on individuals, families, and care systems.
Caitlin Groark, in her second year of gerontology studies, says her interest in a career helping older people probably began as she helped her aging grandparents with small tasks. In the classroom, she is mastering topics such as elder abuse detection, effective communication with seniors, and how the aging process plays out in other countries. Groark is bringing that knowledge and related skills to her curriculum work in the field.
“It can be emotional at times,” Groark says. “These are people who deserve to be protected and kept safe. I’ve got a lot of love for older people.”
Gerontology graduates enter careers in public and private sectors, working as analysts, counselors, advocates, social workers, and program directors, among other areas. Many continue their education and gain professional credentials in fields including psychology, social work, and nursing.
Their skills are increasingly coveted as policymakers and public and private agencies anticipate a rush of people nearing retirement age.
A 2018 Census Bureau report shows that seniors soon will outnumber children in the United States for the first time.
California’s senior population is entering a period of rapid growth, the Public Policy Institute reports. The institute estimates that by 2030, as more and more members of the baby-boom generation reach retirement age, the state’s population of people 65 and older will grow by 4 million and will become far more racially and ethnically diverse.
The agency projects that by 2030 more than 1 million seniors will require some assistance caring for themselves, and the demand for nursing homes will begin to increase after decades of decline.
“As a society, we are not prepared,” says Sac State gerontology Professor Donna Jensen. “We are not prepared for the sheer numbers that we are going to see, and we’re not prepared for the ethnic, language, and cultural needs of this elder population.”
Across the region, Sac State’s gerontology students and graduates are responding to the unprecedented call for professionals who serve seniors. They are powerful examples of support for President Robert S. Nelsen’s declaration that the University is an “anchor institution” with strong ties to the community.
Timely growth and increased relevance
The Gerontology Department has come a long way since 1984, when Osborne arrived on campus as a nursing professor. “There was no discussion of a gerontology major then,” she says.
Emanuel Gale, now a professor emeritus, taught courses in the gerontology minor that began in 1978, and served as the gerontology program’s first director. A major was first offered in 1990, graduate certificate courses in 2000.
In 2017, gerontology earned full department status. Courses cover a wide range of topics including successful aging, death and dying, chronic disease, and social policy.
Osborne can remember when, in 1996, she and a handful of other faculty members loudly cheered for two gerontology students who attended Commencement ceremonies. In the fall 2018 semester, 261 people majored in gerontology, and the department is graduating about 100 students a year.
Many graduates parlay their degrees into meaningful work across the region and beyond. Several Sac State graduates direct memory care programs at local facilities, and several are analysts for the state’s Department of Aging. Others manage service programs for elderly people and their families.
“The beautiful thing is that our students are taking their skills into the community and getting good jobs,” Jensen says.
College evaluators rank Sac State’s gerontology studies as among the top programs in the country.
College Choice, which considers information from its own analysts as well as from sources such as U.S. News & World Report and Payscale.com, ranks Sac State’s bachelor’s degree program as the fifth-best in the nation.
Kelly Niles-Yokum, president of the California Council of Gerontology and Geriatrics, agrees with the national group’s assessment.
“Sac State is an outstanding program for sure,” says Niles-Yokum, a gerontology professor at the University of La Verne in Southern California. She cited the Sac State department’s curriculum, quality of its faculty, and its community partnerships as keys to its success.
Building personal bridges to the community
One of those partners is River’s Edge, a retirement community close to campus. There, students are paired with residents, and they practice skills used by case managers. As students get to know their senior partners, they help them attain the best quality of life possible. That might include connecting them with community resources to address concerns such as improving mobility, staving off loneliness, practicing good nutrition, or getting help with insurance issues.
Groark and her student partner, Muhammad Ali, meet weekly at River’s Edge with Lisa Brown, a retired nurse and former nun who has chronic health issues but generally is robust. Groark and Ali are learning Brown’s life story, practicing communication skills, and offering help with technology related to her smart phone and iPad. The relationship could become more complicated over time, “but right now it’s mostly about interacting with her, learning people skills,” Groark says.
Kim Adams, a River’s Edge administrator, said hundreds of residents have worked with Sac State students during a partnership that has spanned 12 years. Some pairings have led to enduring friendships that have included dinners with family members and trips to the gym. A few Sac State students have been hired to work at the River’s Edge complex.
During a semester, students spend a total of 20 hours with their River’s Edge senior partners, and provide valuable feedback that can help administrators craft new programs or alter existing ones, says Nancy Schier Anzelmo, a gerontologist and Alzheimer’s disease specialist who teaches at Sac State.
Minutes before students met their partners for the first time in late February at the retirement community, Anzelmo urged them to “dig deep” and “build trust” to create strong alliances and discover how they can best assist the elders.
Seniors participating in the program described the Sac State connection as uplifting.
“I keep an open mind. Every time I do this, I learn something new,” says Brown, settling into a chair in the River’s Edge library to talk to Groark and Ali. “I’m looking for good communication, and maybe a friendship.”
Near the warmth of a fireplace in the lobby, student Maribel Guevara chatted and laughed with her partner, John Wear. Wear, his cane propped against the sofa, shared that he had recently moved to River’s Edge with his sheltie dog, Sophie, and calico cat, Emma. He talked about his love of music, and the fact he no longer is able to drive. He said he’d like to learn to play the guitar. Guevara volunteered to help him explore the idea. They also discussed walking his dog together for exercise.
“Every time I talk to him, I learn something new,” Guevara says a few weeks later. She asks him about his doctor’s visits and encourages him to take part in activities at the center to broaden his social life. Wear has told Guevara that her visits are the highlight of his week.
“I’ve gotten very close to him,” she says.
Guevara says she originally dreamed of working in pediatrics, but fell hard for gerontology.
“I get to study all kinds of things, like psychology and sociology, and meet older people who have such great stories to tell,” she says. She’s unsure where her gerontology degree might take her, “but I’m open to whatever it brings me,” she says.
Gerontology students also work with members of the Renaissance Society, a group that promotes lifelong learning for older people, on the Sac State campus. Renaissance members attend classes and meet individually with students to give them personal insights into the aging process, Osborne says.
In a chronic disease class, for example, elders discuss what it is like to live with heart disease, Alzheimer’s, strokes, vision loss, and other conditions affecting them or their family. They discuss how they cope with pain, caregiving, and loneliness. In another course, students study “global aging,” or what growing older is like in various countries.
Beyond the University’s boundaries
Off campus, Sac State students participate in practicums, choosing from among dozens of partner agencies, businesses, and organizations that serve older people. They work in tandem with agency supervisors and are required to develop and implement projects within the organizations.
Last year, for example, a student worked with the Sacramento SPCA to develop a program that brought therapy pets to Eskaton Gold River’s Memory Care Unit. The “Gentle Touch Companion” program was so successful that the care home and animal agency are considering continuing the project.
Another student created a “tool kit” for the Area 4 Agency on Aging that is designed to help mandatory reporters detect and report elder abuse. A third launched an exercise program designed to improve balance and prevent falls for residents of a local nursing facility. Others developed websites and brochures for social-service agencies.
Each of these projects, and many others, have made significant impact on elderly people and the programs and agencies that serve them, Osborne says.
Inside and outside the classroom, the Gerontology Department is thriving, she says, and its graduates will help fill a critical role in society in the years to come.
“Our graduates are exactly what the community needs in terms of a workforce,” she says. “Most agencies in our region that provide services for older adults now have gerontology specialists, and most of them came from Sac State. We’re very proud of that.”