Health Sciences Report Winter 2005

Mastering Gerontology-
College of Nursing Deals with Diverse Aspects of Aging

By Chantelle Turner
Photos By Tim Kelly

Kris Atkinson Ewert has always been drawn to older adults, despite the absence of grandparents and the influence of elderly extended family members in her life. "One reason I have gravitated toward older adults is because they are grateful," she said.

That's fortunate for Ewert, R.N., B.S.N., M.S., a 2003 graduate of the gerontology master's degree program at the University of Utah College of Nursing. The need for professionals trained to work with the elderly is increasing exponentially.

Utah has the sixth largest growth rate in the nation for people over 65 years old. This older population is expected to more than double between 2010 and 2020 as baby boomers reach retirement, according to data compiled by the U's Center on Aging.

Aging affects individuals and society in a myriad of ways that we often fail to realize, from retirement planning and housing to travel and leisure activities. Lawyers need to be educated on estate planning, architects must consider lifestyle traits and physical limitations of seniors in housing and building plans, and marketers must strive to understand and appeal to the emotions and needs of the aging consumer.

It was this diversity that drew Sarah Jane Obray, M.S., into the U's gerontology program.

"Gerontology encompasses so many disciplines, allowing you to study politics, health, and family relationships," said Obray, an adjunct instructor in the College of Nursing. She felt its broad scope would keep her interest for years to come. Plus, it was a relatively new field of study, in her mind, and the prospect of making a valuable contribution to society appealed to her. "Any research or studies done would be groundbreaking and pioneering," she noted.

The study of the aging process and the issues related to an aging society, or gerontology, has morphed over the years at the U. The gerontology program, housed in the College of Nursing since 1982, approved a gerontology master's degree program in 1993, making it only the second graduate degree program in gerontology offered in the Intermountain West.

Students specialize in one of four primary areas: research/evaluation; long-term care and aging services administration; educational gerontology and lifelong learning; and geriatric care management.

Ewert, a graduate of the U baccalaureate nursing program in 1998, had clinical experience that she wanted to supplement with business skills. The long-term care and aging services administration track was the perfect fit.

"When I started taking classes, it opened my eyes to a whole new world of academia and research taking place nationally," Ewert said. "I thought I had a fairly broad knowledge base, but it was mostly on local programs and it was clinically oriented."

Her desire to inform health-care workers and patients about the resources and information available to them led her to become clinical educator for Rocky Mountain Home, Health & Hospice in Salt Lake City. She educates staff on the purposes of hospice and the organization's policies and procedures.

Previously, Ewert served as Rocky Mountain's clinical administrator, overseeing 150 employees in eight offices throughout Utah, but she resigned from that position just before the birth of her son last July.

The administration track allowed her to maintain a focus on people, while still preparing her with the skills and knowledge necessary to coordinate the work of health-related organizations, promote an understanding of the aging process, and implement services at a local, state or national level.

Ewert's career continues to evolve. One day, she hopes to obtain a position with a national organization, such as the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and become involved in federal legislation and public policy.

For Obray, who graduated from the U in 1999 with a master's degree, the field of aging was a logical extension of her bachelor's degree in sociology from Brigham Young University.

She chose the educational gerontology and lifelong learning route, taking courses in family caregiving, economics of aging and retirement, research methods, and death, dying and bereavement. The latter helped define her area of focus and provided a basis for her master's project. Based on the research she completed, a program called "Pathfinder" was developed to help individuals manage the grief and long-term adjustments associated with losing a spouse. Experts presented classes on finance, exercise, volunteer opportunities, cooking, and more to the bereaved. Obray later was asked to join the staff of "Living after Loss," which replaced Pathfinder, as associate site coordinator.

Living after Loss, funded by a five-year grant from the NIA, focuses on finding the most effective ways to help recently widowed people age 50 and older cope. The U is collaborating on the project with San Francisco State University's gerontology program.

In addition to the master's project or thesis, U students must complete a practicum. Obray volunteered at Salt Lake County Aging Services, recruiting senior volunteers for positions ranging from foster grandparents to local library aides.

"One of the strongest points of our program is the practicum, which gives students a chance to work directly with community agencies and the elderly," explained Yvonne Sehy, R.N., Ph.D., G.N.P., gerontology program director and assistant professor at the U College of Nursing. "It gives students the experience needed to move into a career, because they are learning and developing practical skills."

Sehy and three others make up the core faculty of the gerontology program. She has a clinical background as a geriatric nurse practitioner. Mike Caserta, Ph.D., associate professor, and Dale Lund, Ph.D., professor, have conducted research and coauthored numerous journal articles and book chapters on family caregiving and bereavement. Retirement hot spots and the subsequent economic impact on local communities are of interest to Scott Wright, Ph.D., associate professor. Nearly 20 additional adjunct instructors and professors round out the nursing college's gerontology faculty.

The composition of the student body is equally diverse. Students have degrees in some 25 different academic areas, including law, behavioral, social and health sciences, business, education, and humanities.

While students enhance their education and career opportunities through the gerontology program, Sehy hopes they won't forget to improve the quality of their own age-related experiences.

Obray says her education has given her insight into what she can do now to improve the quality of her retirement years, such as preparing financially for the future and understanding caregiving issues, family relationships, and public policy. "I wouldn't have had that perspective," she noted, "had I not been involved in the gerontology program at the U."

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