Many people provide different answers to the question: “What is gerontology?”
Some define gerontology as the study of family lineage (genealogy). For others, gerontology means the study of rocks (geology).
However, gerontology is different from the academic fields people often mistake it for, said Julie Masters, UNO Gerontology department chair. The study of aging, gerontology is a multi-faceted field that examines the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive and biological aspects of the aging process.
Since 1972, the UNO Department of Gerontology has educated students about aging issues using a multidisciplinary approach. With available courses in Omaha, Lincoln and online, the program helps students learn about real-life applications to improve the aging experience.
Masters said understanding aging issues is critical, as 77 million Americans will be 60 or older in 2020. She refers to her students’ knowledge of the challenges and opportunities of aging as “2020 vision.”
Educational programs include undergraduate, graduate and doctoral coursework as well as a certificate and minor in gerontology. Students can also pursue a graduate certificate or minor and customize courses to their interests.
Masters said gerontology also applies to other fields such as business, law, interior design and public administration. As they take gerontology courses, students can relate their understanding of the older adult to a multitude of other disciplines.
Through gerontology, students also learn about their own aging processes and the value of the aging experience.
“Students learn about how they can better support themselves as well as their family members and friends,” Masters said. “They have an insight that they didn’t have before.”
Over time, the department has experienced tremendous growth, said Chris Kelly, graduate program chair. In addition to providing instruction on aging concepts, the program helps students improve their leadership and research skills.
Kelly said gerontology courses also prepare students for careers in areas such as public policy, management and administration.
“I think it’s exciting for students to realize that there are many different career trajectories within the field of aging,” Kelly said. “We get great satisfaction in our department in helping students advance along those careers.”
The need for people in aging careers continues to grow. Since 2018, more Nebraskans are age 75 and older compared to under the age of 5, according to the Center For Public Affairs Research.
Kelly said aging impacts everyone, and gerontology helps provide an understanding of biological, psychological and social changes.
Janelle Beadle, director of the Aging Brain and Emotion Lab (ABE Lab), said she also observes the need to understand the aging population. This passion led her to mentor students in the lab, which currently consists of eight undergraduate students and two graduate students from disciplines such as gerontology, neuroscience, chemistry and biology.
The students’ research largely focuses on the impact of aging on the brain and emotional functioning. Work in the ABE Lab also helps students understand changes in older adults with dementia and the hormonal basis of empathy in aging.
Beadle said the goal of the research is to better understand the mechanisms behind caregiver compassion fatigue and burnout in order to develop targeted interventions.
Through the lab, students have presented at national and international conferences as well as written manuscripts for publication. Beadle said she enjoys seeing her students succeed in and outside of the lab.
“I’ve been really lucky to work with talented and hard-working undergraduate and graduate students interested in gerontology and the neuroscience of aging,” Beadle said. “It’s been such a positive experience and I’ve learned a lot about the mentoring process.”
Julie Blaskewicz Boron, doctoral program chair, said the goal of the department is also to train students in interdisciplinary perspectives that will help them obtain meaningful careers.
“Because the field of aging is growing so much, it’s a really exciting time for our doctoral students to be able to pursue a lot of different career opportunities,” Boron said. “Through the coursework, all students are able to see the wide applicability of the field of aging to various disciplines. I think that’s been a huge asset to our students. We are fortunate to have faculty with diverse research programs so that our students can be trained with rich, multidisciplinary experiences.”
For Masters, one vital way to prepare students is to help them understand the importance of advocating for older adults. She said people become more different than similar as they age, and caregivers must consult with older adults to learn how to best serve them.
Masters said the list of aging careers will become more extensive as the world ages.
“Today, our students can work in a myriad of places from independent or assisted living communities to banks and law firms,” Masters said. “Students can also be entrepreneurs and create their own businesses. As the aging population grows, the opportunities can be even more expansive and rich with potential for creativity.”
Learn more about UNO Gerontology:
Learn more about the ABE Lab’s latest research study: