Photo: Western Oregon University student Amy Ringering interacts with David Small, Helen Hiebert, Lily Goodwin, Berna Howry and Brownie Fausset during a memory exercise at Dallas Retirement Village. As part of WOU’s gerontology program, students spend time in the community with older adults. / DANIELLE PETERSON / Statesman Journal
By Cara Pallone
Grace Hampton has been thinking more about living in the present.
Lately, she’s been spending time in the Memory Care Center at Dallas Retirement Village where she helps organize games and walks with people who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“The whole focus is right here, right now and how can we make your day better right now,” she said. “I really like that. I feel like it’s a lesson everyone could learn from.”
The 23-year-old started her freshman year at Western Oregon University studying elementary education, but she has since changed her major to gerontology: the study of aging.
Her options for careers in this field are vast, as the senior population continues to spike. By 2030, according to data compiled by the Administration on Aging, there will be more than 70 million Americans age 65 and older, a number that has more than doubled since 2000.
Western Oregon University strives to support this trend with its gerontology major and minor programs that were introduced in fall 2011. The Monmouth university offers the first and only undergraduate gerontology major program in Oregon.
“The baby boomers are moving through and we really need to prepare ourselves as a society to take better care of the aging population,” said Dr. Robert Winningham, professor and chairman of the psychology division at WOU. “There’s a huge workforce needed.”
Employment in home health care services is expected to increase nearly 70 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and the need for qualified employees in community care services for the older demographic is expected to rise 55 percent.
Hampton’s volunteerism at Dallas Retirement Village stems from Dr. Margaret Manoogian’s social ties and aging class, one course option in WOU’s gerontology program.
This is the first year for the class and Manoogian wanted her students to gain real-life experience working with seniors in the community. She required them to complete 18 service-learning hours with a focus on social connections.
“I wanted them to be in contact with older adults and realize they can establish pretty wonderful relationships with them regardless of age difference,” she said.
The students chose a variety of projects, from serving as companions to organizing social activities at area senior facilities.
Students Chris Fox and Adam Schneider offered to help with basic computer skills at the Monmouth Senior Center. The sign-up sheet filled up almost immediately.
“They think we’re geniuses,” Fox said as his classmates laughed on a recent morning in Manoogian’s class.
He said the experience has opened his eyes to the daily tasks he takes for granted.
Another student, Amy Ringering, volunteers at Dallas Retirement Village working with seniors on cognitive thinking. She also paints nails, which the women enjoy because it gives them time to chat with her.
Ringering is majoring in gerontology at WOU and plans to continue her studies upon graduation.
“It’s a leg up to get into the master’s in social work program at Portland State University,” she said. “It’s highly competitive.”
The gerontology major and minor programs were designed not only to give people the skills and expertise to work in a plethora of fields, but also to help prepare students for master and doctoral level programs.
In all, 70 students are majoring or minoring in gerontology, Winningham said.
Careers that they may someday pursue range from long-term care administration to occupational therapy to social work.
“Gerontology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields in academia,” he said.
Required courses include cognitive and physical changes in aging; palliative care and chronic illness; and aging and mental health. Beyond the core classes are a number of electives.
Though Hampton has changed her major a couple of times since her freshman year, now, as a senior, she is certain she has found her calling in gerontology.
“I love it,” she said. “I’m learning and stretching my mind. It’s something every human has in common: We age.”