Innumerable marketing campaigns are built on the idea that getting older is a fate nearly worse than death. But not everyone thinks aging is something to fear.  

Maria Claver, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology and director of the gerontology program at California State University, Long Beach, wants more of us to embrace adding more candles to our birthday cake. "I am really not happy with the term 'anti-aging' because it implies — not so subtly — that aging should be avoided at all costs, which, of course, is impossible," notes Dr. Claver.

It's not as if there's a single way we all age, after all, she continues. "It's individual and influenced by multiple factors." The choices each of us make every day when it comes to food, fitness, stress, smoking and more — regardless of how old we are — will eventually have an impact on how well (or poorly) we age.

"How we age is much more dependent on lifestyle factors than on genetics," confirms Claver. "It's important to learn early on how to balance work and play so that you can foster good habits throughout life."

Serving the Growing Number of Seniors

As the average American's life expectancy rises  —  it grew to 78.8 years, according to the National Institutes of Health  —  so does the need for more professionals in the field of gerontology, the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.

By 2050, the 65-plus population in the U.S is expected to reach nearly 84 million — almost double the number in 2012. That's due in large part to aging Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964.

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The key to healthy aging is to embrace the process, say gerontology experts. Among the best ways to age well: staying both physically and mentally active by joining a fitness class or learning a new language. Photo courtesy of CSU Fullerton 

That makes graduates with a degree in gerontology heavily sought after for jobs. A number of CSU campuses offer both degree and certificate programs in gerontology (see box below).

Darlene Yee-Melichar, Ed.D., health and social sciences professor at San Francisco State University, is coordinator of the campus' gerontology program, which offers a master's degree in the subject.

The degree "prepares the student for effective performance in a career of service to older Americans," Dr. Yee-Melichar explains.

"It also lays a firm academic foundation in applied gerontology for students who choose to work toward a doctoral degree. Students have the opportunity to choose a number of career paths in the field of aging within the public and private sectors."

Possible career paths include:

  • administration
  • advocacy
  • civic engagement
  • financial and legal services
  • fitness and wellness
  • health care
  • housing and home modification
  • intergenerational activities
  • personal care
  • research
  • travel and transportation 

"A career in gerontology allows for one to be creative and innovative," adds Claver. "Advancements in every part of the field are happening at such a rapid pace that students may end up getting a job with a title that doesn't even exist when they enter their program of study."

What Gerontologists Do

One of gerontology's biggest misconceptions is that this field of study largely focuses on illness and death. While both are naturally part of geriatrics studies, they aren't the emphasis. The overall process of aging is the core of gerontology.

Celeste Jones, Ph.D., professor of social work at California State University, Chico, explains: "I think it is critical for college students to keep in mind that aging crosses many disciplines: business, recreation, nursing, social work, nutrition, child development, psychology, construction management, finance and accounting. Aging touches all of the areas of study."

For those students who do choose to work with senior citizens, Dr. Jones thinks they're likely to find it a rewarding career. "Older adults are very grateful for your help, whatever the profession. They know what is important in life and remind us of that perspective, and they carry wonderful stories of their life and our history," she says.

"As a gerontologist, my goal is to help older adults maximize their independence and live the life they want," Claver explains. "The field needs people with a gift of working directly with individuals and their families. It also needs people that have strengths in creating and evaluating programs, or fundraising, or public policy and advocacy, or artistic ability, even," she continues.  

"This field is a good fit for anyone that cares about optimizing quality of life for the older adults of today and tomorrow."

Yee-Melichar puts it even more simply: "Working in gerontology gives you the opportunity to make an impact on someone's life."