Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Helping Us Age Wisely

The combination of my own creaky joints, spending spring break with my parents, and planning a trip to Memphis to be with my grandmother for her 104th birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about aging lately. Talking with Daniel Van Dussen, director of the new Gerontology program at YSU, reminded me that I am far from alone.

Aging is something that affects all of us, if we’re lucky, but as Daniel points out, this is not just a personal issue. As the national population gets older – a trend that is even more pronounced here in the Mahoning Valley – we’re seeing changes in social and economic patterns that affect us individually and collectively. People are living longer and remaining active later in their lives, which creates a need for more programs for older adults. That creates demand for more senior housing projects, but it also generates growth in adult education and exercise programs, as well as in health care targeted to issues of aging. At the same time, more middle-aged people find themselves providing some kind of elder care.

The demographic shift is also affecting the economy, in several ways. For the healthiest older adults, worklife is extending far past 65. For some, that’s a matter of economic necessity, but for others it’s a social choice, a way of remaining active and engaged. That shift might tighten the job market for younger adults, though. On the other hand, the needs of an aging population create new jobs in health care and social services. That job growth is part of what the new Gerontology program aims to address.

Beyond all of this, I think one of the values of this growing field is its potential to help all of us learn how to deal more effectively with aging. No one enjoys the physical changes that come with aging, and dealing with aging parents and grandparents can create strains within families. The more we understand the physical, psychological, and social issues related to aging, the better prepared we can be to respond positively. For the Board of Regents, Gerontology might seem like a valuable field because it prepares students for jobs. For the rest of us, it matters because it can help us live better.

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