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Alternative Degrees for Geriatrics Care

By Jessica Girdwain

Ashford University has introduced new online courses designed to educate more students on the important role of aging patients’ treatment. Is this the future?

In hopes of meeting the healthcare demands of the aging population, Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa, has introduced a new online degree program designed to arm students with the skills that will give them a strong position in the job market to care for baby boomers.

“We’re under a global age wave. In fact, we’re on the cusp of that wave as boomers turn 60. And we will have a tremendous population that will need care, but we don’t have personnel or facilities to provide what they will need,” explains Alice Vestergaard, EdD, executive dean of the College of Health, Human Services, and Science at Ashford University. That’s the reason for the emphasis on Ashford’s new areas of study. “Our degree programs are designed to provide education and preparation for those serving the aging population, including those who are sick and well,” says Vestergaard.

Additionally, Vestergaard says society is beginning to look at adulthood differently, viewing it as a developmental stage, which is why there’s a need to train emerging healthcare providers in aging care. Because medical advances allow people to live longer and with a better quality of life, she stresses that we need to put emphasis on the retirement years. “We’ll spend a third of our life span in this time period, and older adults won’t be aging like their parents did,” she says.

Ashford University’s new program features four new bachelor-level degrees, as follows:

• The bachelor of arts in complementary and alternative health examines non-Western systems of integrated and holistic health, including Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, acupuncture, hypnosis, reiki, meditation, and prayer.

• The bachelor of arts in health informatics combines research, statistics, and design in a health and human service context.

• The bachelor of arts in health and wellness includes nutrition, health program planning, and community health.

• The bachelor of arts in gerontology covers mental well-being, social policy, demographics, and diversity in aging.

Beyond the influx of boomers, Vestergaard also points to the changing scope of how older adults are treated. “Gerontology programs have traditionally followed a medical model. In our programs, we’re using a psycho-social-spiritual one,” Vestergaard says.
She explains the university’s programs are designed to focus on the following two themes running throughout each concentration:

• The changing role of technology in care and provision of services. For example, telemedicine has altered the way we interact with aging loved ones. Previously, people cared for loved ones at home but today, children grow up and move around the nation. Telemedicine measures and tracks body systems to provide important feedback. The focus on technology aims to emphasize and reflect what’s happening in the real world.

• Cultural diversity. “Many people practice non-Western medicine and hold different beliefs, including religious and spiritual practices. Each culture has a different view on aging and caring for elders,” Vestergaard says. Now, larger healthcare systems have policies governing practices such as healing ceremonies, for example.

Innovation to Meet Increasing Demands
Other institutions offer online bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the aging field, though Ashford’s is the only one to weave the current cutting-edge themes directly through their programs, which Vestergaard stresses makes them unique.

“We’re really being innovative. We’re preparing a workforce for a changing world. Part of that is a multicultural one and another is a world filled with emerging technology. It’s crucial for anyone planning to work in aging to come out of any training program with an understanding of different cultures and viewpoints and perspectives of aging. Our graduates need to be—and will be—able to step into that,” she says.

“We definitely need this type of thing, and I really appreciate that Ashford is doing it. No matter what professional field, everyone will be working with older adults,” says Barbara Resnick, PhD, CRNP, president of the American Geriatrics Society and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. “These skills will help outgoing students provide care and train others to provide care for the aging population.”

And though these types of programs have come long before Ashford University instituted them (the University of Maryland has similarly focused programs), Resnick stresses that they typically have been very small and difficult to maintain because of funding concerns.

Ashford’s program has the advantage of being online only. Offering a degree online creates an opportunity to attract people who otherwise might be unable to get one, whether they’re working, staying home with children, or in the military. 

Vestergaard stresses that an online presence makes “the world our classroom.” Plus, educators have leeway to alter the curriculum quickly, unlike traditional schools, which take longer periods of time. This is invaluable to move along with the landscape of changing technology, so Ashford’s programs will remain on the cutting edge.

Such degrees are intended to act as foundation degrees. Although students can certainly utilize them to land great jobs following graduation, these degrees are designed to be stepping-stones on the road to additional degrees, such as medical doctors or registered nurses.

Another shift in aging education is toward interdisciplinary gerontology PhD programs, notes Resnick. People who have undergraduate interest in aging healthcare may enroll in a baccalaureate program like Ashford’s but then go on to earn a PhD focused specifically on gerontology. “This wave is exciting. These people can expand their knowledge of policy-related work and care of older adults,” Resnick says.

Despite initiatives like Ashford University’s, these programs aren’t large scale enough to fill the gap for the coming baby boomers and the care they’ll need. “The good news is that it will increase the number of people who can teach caregivers. We know that no matter what you’re doing in the future, you’re going to have to work with older adults. These programs will give you a leg up if you’re competing for a position,” says Resnick.

“I’m trying to prepare a workforce to enter into this field of aging,” says Vestergaard. “And at the same time, I’m trying to change the perception of what it means to age.”

— Jessica Girdwain is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has contributed health-related articles to several national magazines.