Mac McLean / The Bulletin

Mike Elzner said a personal passion to serve the elderly led him to study gerontology - an academic discipline that looks at the social, psychological and biological impacts of the aging process - when he decided to go back to college and pursue his bachelor's degree.

Elzner said he also chose gerontology because he knew the country's rapidly growing aging population would put the skills he'd learn in high demand.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 8,000 to 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 17 years, and the number of people who will be left behind to care for them is not growing nearly as fast.

“I saw it as a place of opportunity,” said Elzner, 56, who received a bachelor of science in human development and family science with a major concentration in gerontology from Bend's Oregon State University-Cascades in 2011. But Elzner's story is unusual not because of why he chose to study gerontology while attending OSU-Cascades, but because he chose to study it at all.

Elzner said he knows of only one other student who followed the same gerontology-focused course of study. The college awarded bachelor's degrees to 200 students that year, spokeswoman Christine Coffin said.

Nobody, including Elzner, knows exactly why gerontology would be such an unpopular field of study at OSU-Cascades.

But because of lack of student interest, OSU-Cascades administrators have almost completely shut down its gerontology program.

“There's not a real big push for a specialized gerontology education,” said Dennis Lynn, lead instructor for the college's human development and family sciences program. “Every year some students are interested (in the topic) but there just aren't enough students to sustain the program.”

The study of 'old man'

Blending the Greek words for “old man” and “study of,” gerontology takes a multi-faceted approach toward the aging process that combines aspects of biology, sociology, psychology, political science, humanities and economics.

“You have to take a broad approach ... if you want to understand what goes on later in life,” said Carolyn Aldwin, director of Oregon State University's gerontology program, as she explained why her field covers such a wide range of topics.

According to its website, OSU has offered a comprehensive gerontology program at its main campus in Corvallis since 1972. It was one of the country's first colleges to offer gerontology as a field and is now one of seven institutes of higher learning in Oregon with such a program.

Aldwin said pursuing gerontology as a major or minor concentration - or even working toward a certificate like the one OSU offers - gives students an edge in finding a job at a long-term care facility, health care setting or senior center, or in other career field in which they would be working with older people.

“More than a fourth of our students are returning students, and they understand there are jobs in this area,” she said, explaining one of the main reasons students who enroll in her college's human development and family science program express an interest in gerontology.

Lynn, the lead instructor as OSU-Cascades human development and family science program, confirmed this notion and said he often receives phone calls from long-term care facilities out of state asking if he has any gerontology students who seem promising.

“In the next decade,” he said, “Something like 20 percent of Oregonians are going to be 65 or older.”

But while the demand may be out there, the students simply are not coming, Aldwin said, explaining that only 30 of the 800 students pursuing a bachelor's degree in human development and family studies at OSU's Corvallis campus are also working toward a gerontology certificate.

By not studying gerontology, Aldwin said, her students are missing out on a wealth of “self-knowledge.” “We all have aging family members and we're all going to be aging ourselves,” she said, adding her colleagues often come to her with questions about what's happening to their parents or to them as they age. “Studying adult development and gerontology really provides students with a structure to help understand what's going on in their own lives.”

Aldwin also said that by not studying gerontology, her students are missing out on a chance to get jobs in a field that will continue to grow as the boomers get older. Lynn sees this as a missed opportunity, one not only for his students but one that could have ramifications in our future.

“The reality is that a serious shortage of academically prepared professionals (in gerontology) sets up a missed opportunity to meet the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly increasing aging population,” Lynn said. “A deficit in the number of professionals with knowledge and expertise in aging impacts everything from the daily quality of life for seniors to the establishment of long-term programs and policies at national and international levels. Individuals, families, communities and countries will be unprepared to think critically and creatively, and plan compassionately and courageously for the needs of the elderly.”

Children vs. seniors

Every student working toward a bachelor's degree in human development and family science at OSU-Cascades must complete two internships to give them what Lynn called a “full immersion” educational experience in the real world.

Because students pick the organizations they want to intern with based on their current interests, Lynn said tracking which students sign up for what internships is a pretty good way to determine what type of careers they might pursue when they graduate.

They also serve as yet one more reminder as to how unpopular the field of gerontology is at OSU-Cascades. Out of the 30 students who are working on a HDFS internship this year, Lynn said only five are working with the elderly.

“The main focus for our students is in the child development and human services sectors,” Lynn said, explaining the college's remaining 25 HDFS students are working with organizations that focus on children or families that are in need of help.

Aldwin sees the same trend when it comes to her students at OSU's Corvallis campus. She said many of them focus their studies and internships, on a career path that includes “children, their families, or any combination of the two.”

“Trying to get younger folks interested in older folks is kind of difficult,” she said. “They tend to be more comfortable with (and more interested in working with) people who are younger than them or people who are like them.”

Aldwin said OSU's biggest weapon in this fight is the school's Gerontology Student Organization, which organizes pizza parties, classroom demonstrations and contests designed to get other students interested in gerontology.

Lynn also has a strategy to get his students at OSU-Cascades interested in working with older people. Every year, he assigns an essay where they imagine what their lives will be like in 40-50 years.

He said writing this essay has proved to be a transformative experience for some of his students who quit smoking or started exercising more once they take a look into what their futures may hold if they continue with their bad habits. It's also shed light on something else, he said.

“Younger people have a hard time imagining themselves as being old,” Lynn said, explaining this may be another reason why none of them are pursuing a career or a degree in gerontology.

Gerontology programs in Oregon

Oregon State University is one of seven institutes of higher learning in Oregon that offers students a chance to study gerontology as part of a certificate or major/minor concentration program. Here are the types of programs offered at each school:

* Clackamas Community College (Oregon City): Students can pursue a certificate in gerontology that involves one year of coursework and can help them get an entry-level job in a field where they would work with the aging.

* Marylhurst University (Marylhurst): Students can pursue a certificate in gerontology that involves one year of coursework and helps them get jobs working with the aging. Graduate students seeking a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies can also focus their course of study on this topic.

* Oregon State University (Corvallis): Undergraduate students can work toward a certificate in gerontology that involves one year of coursework and could help them get jobs in a field where they would work with the aging. Graduate students can minor in gerontology no matter what their field or pursue a major concentration in the topic if they are working toward a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies.

* Pacific University (Forest Grove): Students enrolled in the college's online program can pursue a 15-month graduate certificate in gerontology for the health care professional that focuses on aging, adjusting the health care environment for the elderly and patient rights.

* Portland Community College (Portland): Students can pursue a certificate in gerontology that involves one year of coursework and can help them get an entry-level job in a field where they would work with the aging.

* Portland State University (Portland): Post-baccalaureate students can work toward a graduate certificate in gerontology that trains them how to work with the aging in a multidisciplinary fashion.

* Western Oregon University (Monmouth): Students in the college's behavioral sciences division can pursue a major in gerontology that involves 58 credit hours or a minor in gero-psychology that involves 27 credit hours. They can also make it a concentration for an applied baccalaureate degree.