Gerontology minor makes difference


SUMMARY: JMU social work's gerontology minor (GERN) attracts a diverse population of students from communication sciences and disorders (CSD), health sciences (HS) and other students interested in working with the elderly population.

By: Daniel Vieth '15
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: Elderly patient being helped

As the medical world moves toward a more interdisciplinary practice, having a diverse perspective of health fields can enhance the delivery of services to patients. This is also true in the field of gerontology, where aging patients need holistic care that addresses not only their physical needs, but also their psychosocial and emotional needs. Recognizing this, JMU social work’s gerontology minor (GERN) attracts a diverse population of students from communication sciences and disorders (CSD), health sciences (HS) and anyone else interested in working with the elderly population. Students in the GERN capstone class engage with the community by volunteering at local adult care settings to apply their interdisciplinary knowledge.

Though gerontology is an important field, it is often undervalued in our society. “I realized through working at a nursing home and through interactions with the elderly that they are a population that often gets overlooked,” said Erin Hoyt, a CSD major and GERN minor. “Most of the people that I have classes with want to work with children eventually, which is great, but the aging are also a needing population.” Hoyt explains that this may be due to individuals being uncomfortable working with the elderly, potentially because of stereotypes about this population. “I think as a culture we don’t value the elderly as much as people in other places do, but they have so much to offer; so many stories and life experiences we can learn from,” Hoyt continued. “I’ve been lucky enough to have had really great interactions over the years with that population, which made me want to work with that population and join the minor.”

Like Hoyt, many students choose to join the GERN major because of their personal experiences with elderly populations. “I have always had a love for the elderly,” said Kate Fearon, a CSD major and GERN minor. “Even before I chose my major, I was sure that whatever I did it would involve the elderly population.” As Fearon’s case demonstrates, GERN gives students the opportunity to combine their knowledge and skills from their majors to help aging populations. “Having a background in speech pathology and audiology pairs really well with the [GERN] minor, as many older adults have issues with speech, swallowing and hearing,” Fearon explained. “Being able to understand part of why they have these problems and how to help with them is really important.”

During their capstone class, GERN students apply what they learn in the minor by volunteering for at least 90 hours at a local nursing home or adult care setting. “I believe that any volunteering with the aged population is a win/win scenario,” said Dorothy Harriman, a social work faculty member and Interim Field Director of the GERN minor. “The students learn and understand this population’s goals, needs and expectations while the aged population provide an enormous amount of wisdom, direction and knowledge base for our students. By working with the elderly population, students can begin to see how their work impacts others through direct care and observation.” Currently, GERN students are volunteering at Avante, Sunnyside, Brookdale and Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community.

When choosing field placements, GERN students are able to look for positions related to their major field of study. “I meet with a speech pathologist twice a week for a few hours in the mornings, and I love it,” said Hoyt. “It’s a lot of observing and shadowing, as well as interactions with the patients.” Other students had the chance to learn from individuals in a different field than their major. “I work with a social worker at Avante,” said Fearon. “Following [the social worker’s] daily routine, and seeing how she is able to help patients has really opened my eyes to what being a social workers is really like. It actually made me decide to go to graduate school in social work!” 

The interdisciplinary aspect of the minor and volunteering experience better prepares students for their careers after graduating, where they will be working with teams of healthcare professionals from a number of fields. “It’s really great to get that experience before graduating and entering the working world,” said Hoyt. “You get so many different perspectives, and learn how to practice good teamwork.”

“I love seeing the progress people make after working with them, even those little successes,” said Hoyt. “I want to be a part of that, to help give aging populations that independence and dignity, because that’s really important.” The GERN minor and the volunteering experience give students that chance to make a difference for the aging population. “The gerontology minor has been my favorite part of my education here at JMU,” Fearon added. “My volunteering experience has reminded me of what a joy working with the elderly is.”

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Published: Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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