Day by day and week by week, the number of older Americans continues to grow.
That is why the Westchester Alliance says it is urgent that colleges and universities continue the work they are already doing to increase their courses on aging issues and bring aspects of those issues into every discipline they offer.
The alliance said that work is essential because whatever field people choose today – be it architecture, law, marketing or anything else – the sweeping demographic changes mean they will have greater contact with seniors in their everyday work.
Also, colleges and universities have a responsibility to offer such classes to educate the thousands of trained and qualified people needed to deal with issues and challenges the elderly face now and will confront in the future.
The Westchester Alliance’s full name is the Westchester Alliance of Academic Institutions for Aging Related Studies and Workforce Development, and its 25 members are businesses, not-for-profit organizations, colleges and universities.
Such collaboration, it says, will make older Americans more visible, which, in turn, will galvanize awareness of the pressing need to develop national social policies on aging issues.
Another priority of the Westchester Alliance is to interest college students in careers in aging services and to encourage adults to consider the so-called “Silver Industries” for a second, or even, third, career.
To reach these goals, the alliance has expanded its Web site at http://westchesterpartnership.org. It will be the go-to source for aging services information that is presented in a cohesive and usable format for professionals within or outside the field as well as for students.
Just a sampling of the site’s contents are articles on everything from “The New Retirement Mindscape” and “Publications on Curriculum Development” to national and local resources including many in Westchester County, a wealth of statics, and postings about grants and student internships.
“It’s one-stop shopping,” said Colette Phipps, project director and research analyst with Westchester County’s Department of Senior Programs and Services (DSPS). “It will certainly increase the visibility of aging issues. Because the rapidly growing number of older adults is a relatively new phenomenon, there is a lot of information out there but no cohesive way to bring it together – especially in Westchester. The Web site can start to fill that gap.”
U.S. Census statistics underscore the urgency of the situation.
The bureau reports that nationally the number of people age 65 and older will increase to 55 million by 2020, a 36 percent increase from 2010.
In Westchester, residents over 60 represent 20 percent of the total population or one in five people. They will represent 25 percent of the population - or one in four - by 2030. And in the entire Hudson Valley region, the number of people over 60 is already twice as large as the national average.
The Westchester Alliance is sponsored by the Westchester Public/Private Partnership for Aging Services, the Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation and United Way of Westchester and Putnam. The foundation and United Way have supported the alliance since it began in 2004. No taxpayer money is used.
Commissioner Mae Carpenter of Westchester County’s Department of Senior Programs and Services commended the Westchester Alliance for its advocacy role.
“The shortage of workers to care for the rapidly aging population is already at the crisis level and could worsen greatly in coming years,” Carpenter said. “Like the Westchester Alliance, we must all be pro-active and forward-thinking. We cannot ignore the gravity of this situation and become a society that asks ‘what happened?’ when older people have fallen though the safety net.”
Carpenter also said that the many good job opportunities in the Silver Industries is one of the best kept secrets around and the site highlights such positions.
“Colleges and universities would be doing their students a disservice by not sharing this information with them,” she said. “Often students think of a career in aging as working with the frail elderly. But there are so many more options - real estate, law, finance and marketing to name a few.”
For example, students who want to be real estate brokers may want to consider a specialty in homes for older Americans that are barrier free, close to shopping and have first-floor bathrooms. Students considering becoming lawyers may decide to focus on elder law, while future financial planner could develop a subspecialty in counseling seniors about their assets.
A study by the Ravazzin Center of Aging at Fordham University in West Harrison - the alliance’s research arm – that shows that 40 percent of the students in one of its projects have developed a great interest in the field because of their classes.
Carpenter said those findings were not a surprise. Exposure to these topics, she said, often spark a desire among young people to learn more – and sometimes to take action.
She recalled a student who took part in a conference several years ago about the cost of aging in America. Before participating in the program, he said he saw old people as a burden on society. But after taking part and talking with older people in the community, his attitude made a 180 degree turnaround.
Carpenter said he eventually went on to become an advocate for seniors and worked to help ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.
Students and professors will find many topics of interest on the site. Students, for example, can check out subjects and statistics for term papers as well as internship opportunities posted by local nonprofit organizations to give themselves a head start in the field. Or they can visit the site simply to browse.
Professors in the aging field could log on to find specific information they might want to include in their courses, develop a new class on aging issues, catch up on articles about age-related topics and learn what grants are available.
Dr. Penelope Moore, an associate professor of social work at Iona College, said the alliance’s online component expands the reach of aging studies because the students do not have to be in a traditional classroom. Moore said she plans to teach an online, four-credit “Introduction to Gerontology” course during Iona’s spring trimester. She said topics will include “physical and cognitive changes that come with aging” and “mental health,” and that the Westchester Alliance Web site will be a vital part of her instruction.
Moore said that the class is to sustain the momentum that originated with a 2005 grant to Iona College and other schools to integrate topics on aging into their instruction. The grant, she said, was from the John A. Hartford Foundation through the Council on Social Work Education Gero-Ed Center.
Moore especially hopes that stereotypes of the elderly will fade as people become educated.
“It’s important to think of not just aging but ‘active aging,’” Moore said. “While sickness and death have a part of it, it’s not all of it. That’s how we hope to promote the course.”
Phipps said the Westchester Alliance will constantly update the Web site with current material and welcomes feedback from its users. “We’re willing to expand,” Phipps said. “We’re open to new ideas.”