What is Gerontology?
Gerontology generally refers to the study of how aging impacts people physically, mentally, and socially. It also assesses the societal implication associated with aging and elderly populations. Whereas geriatrics primarily concentrates on the medical aspects regarding how aging impacts the body, gerontology is much more multidisciplinary.
Individuals working in gerontology use both biological and psychological methodologies to help improve the overall health of the elderly and aging adults. They may also use research to improve policies and technology related to assisting older people in healing and recovery from various conditions. In many cases, gerontology professionals assist aging patients or those who have been diagnosed with advanced or life-threatening illnesses to achieve the greatest possible productivity and quality of life.
It’s important to realize that people may move toward employment in gerontology at various professional stages. The field is expansive and includes entry-level nurses, as well as high-level management. Additionally, the practice can be found at almost any type of facility. It’s not uncommon for individuals in this career to work at small, private doctor’s offices, or at large hospitals.
Because the population of elderly people is increasing in the United States, positions in this field are becoming more necessary than ever. Additionally, scientific and medical advancements have caused life expectancy rates to surge sharply over the last several decades, further warranting the need for gerontology professionals. The state of Alabama has several notable academic programs available for individuals interested in pursuing a career in gerontology. If you are interested in working with older adults and patients with advanced or life-threatening illnesses, this field may be a good fit for you.
It is particularly important to consider local gerontology programs if you are planning to pursue employment in Alabama after graduation. Every state has its own stake in the healthcare industry, with varying numbers and types of professionals working with aging populations. As a result, colleges and universities within the state tend to offer the most locally relevant degrees. Earning a degree from the state in which you intend to work is likely to better prepare you for employment in the area. It also ensures you have the most up-to-date and relevant knowledge sought by local employers.
Gerontology Education in Alabama
As previously mentioned, there are many different positions available in the gerontology field. Some are more specialized than others, requiring a higher level of education to qualify and advance within them. In general, however, some amount of higher education will be necessary for applicants at every level. Those interested can choose from one or more of the following: associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Each of these offers its own set of benefits, career opportunities, and drawbacks. Consider each one carefully before enrolling in a college or university to ensure the program aligns with your ultimate academic and career goals.
Associate Degree in Gerontology (AS)
An associate degree in gerontology is usually sufficient for starting a career in the field. Graduates can find entry-level positions without too much difficulty; however, more advanced opportunities will be limited.
The majority of associate degree programs in gerontology focus on introducing students to the human aging process. Instruction often covers a fundamental assessment of biological, psychological, and sociological factors. Additional topics of interest often include the study of issues and concerns related to aging, as well as the various tools, techniques, and technology available to better service older and aging adults. Students may also gain insight into elderly housing options, health and wellness, business, and finance.
Associate degrees in gerontology usually consist of 60 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately two years to complete.
Every situation is different, but graduates often find employment as:
- Home and Personal Care Aids
- Medical Assistants
- Social and Human Service Assistants
While earning an associate degree in gerontology will not be enough to qualify you for upper-level employment in the field, you can transfer credits earned to an accredited four-year undergraduate institution afterward. This can help expedite the process of earning a bachelor’s degree in the future.
Bachelor's Degree in Gerontology (BS)
Many gerontology professionals in Alabama choose to obtain a bachelor’s degree. This level of education will open many more career pathways, making is more likely to secure better employment and advance further in the field. While there is no standardized curriculum for undergraduate gerontology programs, coursework generally utilizes scientific, social, and cultural lenses to cover the various challenges that aging individuals face. Instruction often includes lifespan development, common and potential medical issues, healthcare, public policy, and social services available. Additionally, students are frequently given the opportunity to specialize in one or more areas of the field by choosing a concentration.
Most bachelor degree programs in gerontology consist of 120 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately four years to complete.
Job availability will vary, but some common employment options after graduation include:
- Social and Community Service Managers
- Social Workers
- Health Educators
- Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorders Counselors
- Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants
Master's Degree in Gerontology (MS or MC)
Individuals wishing to advance their gerontology careers further may benefit from earning a master’s degree. These degrees are most appealing to professionals already working in the medical field who prefer to work with aging patients. Some programs do accept undergraduates without work experience, but applicants should be sure of their interest in this specialization. There are many benefits to earning a graduate degree, including an opportunity to start a career at a more advanced level, as well as having the ability to be promoted faster and make more money. A graduate degree can also help you stand out more among other job candidates.
Most master’s degree programs consist of 60 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately two years to complete. Most colleges and universities offer students the opportunity to declare a concentration, which will dictate the overall curriculum. Common concentrations offered include geriatric care management, geropsychology, and medical physiology. Coursework and future employment options will greatly depend on the track selected.
Graduates often find jobs as:
- Medical and Health Service Managers
- Administrative Service Managers
- Rehabilitation Counselors
- Occupational Therapists
- Research Analysts
It is worth noting that some individuals opt to earn a graduate certificate in gerontology instead of a master’s degree. This can help with career advancement, but takes significantly less time to complete. In most cases, students who choose this route only need to complete four to six courses, allowing them to graduate within a single year.
PhD Degree in Gerontology (PhD)
A doctoral degree is not required for most jobs in gerontology, but earning one can be beneficial. This type of education generally qualifies candidates for the highest level careers in the field, as well as research intensive positions. Most higher education institutions also require professors to have a doctorate degree in order to teach courses.
In most cases, students working towards a doctorate degree will focus on the theory and practice of gerontology and then pursue a more precise specialization. Programs usually consist of between 90 and 120 credit hours and take full-time students three to seven years to complete. Students should expect to spend at least one year conducting research and writing a dissertation on their area of specialization.
Some of the most common career options after graduation include:
- Geriatric Specialists
- Postsecondary Educators
Become a Gerontologist in Alabama
One of the first and most important steps in becoming a gerontology professional in Alabama is seriously considering where you want your career to take you. Once you have established clear goals, it becomes significantly easier to select a higher education program and/or apply for positions in the field. Your aspirations will directly dictate the type of degree you need, as well as the level of employment you will ultimately seek. Take time to determine your specific academic and employment goals now to ensure your time and money is spent wisely.
Once you have completed the necessary educational requirements, you’ll have the option of pursuing certifications and/or licensure. Social workers, for example, must adhere to various licensing regulations and can opt to earn specialized credentials from the National Association of Social Workers. Many professionals working in gerontology are clinical nurses and nurse practitioners. These professionals must be licensed by the Alabama Board of Nursing and Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. Certified registered nurse practitioners can choose between adult gerontology primary care or adult gerontology acute care. Similarly, individuals interested in becoming administrators for nursing homes, residential care facilities, or assisted living residences need to be licensed. Professionals seeking Alabama Nursing Home Administrator Licensure must go through the National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards (NAB).
It is important to realize that many certifications and licensures require continuing education. This ensures professionals in the field are exposed to current field trends, research, and technology. Continuing education classes are frequently offered by state and national gerontology organizations and associations, as well as colleges and universities in Alabama.
Top College Programs in Alabama for Gerontology
There are somewhat limited opportunities to study gerontology in Alabama. A few colleges and universities in the state do, however, offer programs that individuals interested in the field may find helpful.
Some of the most prominent options include:
- University of South Alabama (USA):
The University of Alabama (UA) has a Gerontology program that offers certificates in gerontology at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Additionally, those seeking a bachelor’s degree can choose gerontology as an interdisciplinary minor. The programs provided at UA are designed to provide expertise that will enhance and complement skills acquired from students’ major area of study. It’s also possible to complete the undergraduate certificate in gerontology program remotely.
- University of North Alabama (UNA):
The University of North Alabama (UNA) offers a certificate in gerontology through their Department of Sociology and Family Studies. Candidates include both degree-seeking students and current professionals interested in advancing their careers. The certificate program provides a broad base of knowledge related to the social, psychological, and physiological aspects of aging. It consists of 15 credit hours of coursework, as well as three hours of field practice.
- University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB):
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) offers fellowships in both geriatric medicine and palliative care through the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics, and Palliative Care. Both programs provide advanced, academic training in the field led by award-winning attending physicians and mentors.
Careers for Gerontology Graduates
Once you have earned a degree and any necessary licensure or certification to pursue the career you want in gerontology, there are a wide variety of specific job options you may be qualified to pursue. Salaries and responsibilities vary, depending on the job you ultimately select.
Some of the most common options include:
- Department Manager
- In-Patient / Out-Patient Facility Administrator
- Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA)
- Registered Nurse (RN)
- Nurse Practitioner (NP)
- Nurse Educator
- In-Patient / Out-Patient Facility Administrator
- Occupational Therapist
- College Professor
- Gerontology Research Scientist
- Geriatric Doctor
- Geriatric Medical Assistant
- Registered Nurse (RN):
Registered nurses (RNs) often work for hospitals, medical clinics, outpatient facilities, rehabilitation centers, or senior center to promote wellness and health. Those who specialize in gerontology generally administer care to elderly patients who are ill, injured, convalescent, or disabled. They may also provide advice regarding general health maintenance and disease prevention. According to PayScale, registered nurses make an average base salary of $66,030 per year.
- Nurse Practitioner (NP):
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses with the training and skills necessary to perform many of the same functions as a licensed physician. Unlike RNs, they have the authority to treat and diagnose diseases/conditions, as well as prescribe medications. Those specializing in gerontology often conduct complete physicals and counsel aging patients on various health needs and lifestyle improvements. According to PayScale, nurse practitioners make an average base salary of $98,205 per year.
- Recruiter and Trainer for Staff and Workers:
Recruiters can find positions in a wide variety of fields and facilities. Their primary responsibility is evaluating candidates for jobs. In gerontology, they regularly assess applicant strengths to ensure new staff members have the training, skills, and knowledge necessary to work with aging populations. These professionals must remain current regarding elderly adult needs, medical trends, and emerging technologies in the field. According to PayScale, recruiters make an average base salary of $51,723 per year.
- Occupational Therapist (OT):
Occupational therapists who specialize in gerontology help elderly people gain better function of their bodies in order to make daily and routine activities easier. Treatment is often individualized, so these professionals must be able to evaluate patient abilities accurately and prescribe treatment accordingly. Their primary goal is to help older adults gain more strength and coordination. According to PayScale, occupational therapists make an average base salary of $67,158 per year.
- Nurse Educator:
Nurse educators who work in the gerontology field are responsible for overseeing the continuing education of nursing staff and caregivers for elderly populations. They also evaluate professionals to ensure all guidelines, processes, and standards are being implemented properly. This career is ideal for individuals who enjoy finding and providing educational resources to others. According to PayScale, nurse educators make an average base salary of $77,170 per year.
- College Professor:
College professors in the field of gerontology work in postsecondary and higher education settings to teach students the skills necessary for successful careers working with aging adults. Their primary responsibilities include providing lectures and advising students. Some professors, however, dedicate the majority of their time to developing research, dissertations, and/or thesis-based papers. According to PayScale, college professors make an average base salary of $87,914 per year.
- Gerontology Research Scientist:
Gerontology research scientists work to gather key knowledge about the field. They often spend time trying to understand and find the best ways to apply new research. These professionals are predominantly academic, performing experiments, making observations, and publishing detailed papers regarding their findings. According to PayScale, these scientists make an average base salary of $81,546 per year.
Geriatric doctors are responsible for diagnosing and treating older adult patients. Due to the population type they serve, the conditions these professionals work with tend to be chronic. Additionally, because elderly clients often experience multiple ailments, geriatric doctors must have a thorough knowledge and understanding of drug side effects and interactions. According to PayScale, these doctors make an average base salary of $193,747 per year.
- Geriatric Medical Assistant:
Geriatric medical assistants can work in a variety of settings including physician’s offices, hospitals, and clinics. Their primary responsibility is to provide assistance to the doctors they serve under. This often consists of preparing treatment rooms, walking patients back for examinations, interviewing patients, taking patient vital signs, and writing down any pertinent information provided. According to PayScale, medical assistants make an average base salary of $34,651 per year.
- Alabama Board of Nursing and Alabama Board of Medical Examiners
- Adult – Gerontology Acute Care Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner Standard Protocol
- Alabama Nursing Home Administrator Licensure. National Association of Long Term Care Administrator Boards (NAB). Retrieved on May 20, 2021 from