Gerontology is the study of psychological, social, and biological aspects of the aging process. The term was coined in the early twentieth century from two Greek roots, “geron” (meaning old man) and “logos” (meaning account, reason, or word). In other words, the term refers to attempts to provide scientific or rational analysis of aging, both as a physical or medical condition or as a social phenomenon. While each person ages as an individual, and undergoes various mental and physical changes, aging is also embedded within social structures. For example, in many developed countries, middle class people undergo two distinct economic rites of passage, one when they join the workforce, which signals full participation in adult society, and one when they leave the workforce, which is part of a transition to life as a retiree or senior citizen. Gerontologists can study many different aspects of the aging process and of how societies treat and think about older citizens.
Geriatrics is the medical specialty associated with providing healthcare for the elderly. Several different types of healthcare professional can specialize in geriatrics. Geriatric physicians are doctors with M.D. degrees who usually specialize in internal medicine and have additional training and usually board certification in care for the elderly. Many nurses, including nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and licensed practice and licensed vocational nurses can also specialize in geriatric care in settings including hospitals, assisted living or residential care facilities, or home care. Geriatric physician assistants work as part of healthcare teams treating older patients while geriatric pharmacists also work with healthcare teams and contribute specialist knowledge about the ways medications affect older adults and how commonly prescribed medications for such populations interact with each other. Another important group of professionals are geriatric social workers, who are integral to assessing how financial, community, family, and social elements can affect the health and psychological well-being of seniors.
The American Psychiatric Association defines geriatric psychiatry as focusing on the “prevention, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of mental and emotional disorders in the elderly.” It addresses many different issues such as age-related cognitive decline, the mental repercussions of chronic illnesses or other physical infirmities, and bereavement, as friends and loved ones die.
Other Areas of Gerontology
While geriatric healthcare is a very important part of gerontology, it is far from all there is to the discipline. Scholars in areas such as economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, or various humanistic fields bring their own disciplinary perspectives to the study of aging, such as considering the economic roles and circumstances of seniors, the effectiveness of pension systems, voting patterns of the elderly, or even the way that seniors are portrayed in literature, film, or video games.
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Conclusion: Aging Populations and Gerontology Careers
In most developed countries, people are surviving longer and populations as a whole are aging. According to the United States Census Bureau projections, “by 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older.” The sheer number of older people, and especially the increasing numbers of people in their nineties and older, means a corresponding rise in job opportunities for gerontologists and the need for people in a wide range of businesses to understand how to create products and services that appeal to older adults.