This unit will provide an introduction to the study of gerontology. People have different reasons for studying aging. We will cover at least four of these. The first is that most of us are aware of our own aging, and we often wonder what it will be like to get older; we are concerned about what is normal and what is not; we would like to live long and healthy lives, but we are not sure which of the advertised products we should buy or which of the newspaper stories about longevity we should believe. So the first reason to study aging is to know what to expect and how to prepare for our own aging.

The second reason is also familiar to most of us, the recognition that more and more of us are caregivers to our older parents or other family members. We find that we have to make decisions about whether they can continue to drive a car, whether they can live independently, whether they have enough money to live on, and whether they are getting the care that they need and pay for. We are concerned about their being swindled by dishonest salesmen, about their ability to care for themselves, and about their friends and whether they are expected to give or accept too much help. Thus the second reason for studying aging is to be prepared to help those who are close to us who are increasingly frail and ill.

Third, people study aging because scientists are learning a great deal about what happens normally with age and what is disease related. There are now literally thousands of books that deal with aging and over 100 journals are published regularly on this topic and many professional associations. Aging is a subject that is increasingly visible and everyone should have some familiarity with its various points.

Fourth, gerontological knowledge is increasingly needed and used by professionals and paraprofessionals who work with older people or expect to do so. Education in aging is a way to prepare them to adapt their professional skills to help other people with age specific issues. Whether the helping professional is a home health aide, a social worker, or a physician, there is a need for knowledge about aging and skill in dealing with the elderly. Older people will increasingly comprise a client base for persons in health care, investments, congregate living facilities, children's toys (they are grandparents), or cruises and tours.More and more professionals realize that they are increasingly encountering more and more older people, and they need some preparation in order to successfully serve them.

These valuable outcomes are occurring just at the time when an increasing number of colleges and universities are developing instructional courses in gerontology. A recent survey of institutions of higher education concluded that over half of all campuses offered at least one credit course in gerontology and approximately 500 campuses offered a program of courses, i.e., degree, certificate, specialization, or concentration. Thus, more and more people who wish to learn more about aging are close to campuses which offer this knowledge.

However, these courses are typically available only at large colleges and universities. Most of the community colleges and small colleges offer few or no courses in gerontology. Thus gerontological knowledge is only available to a portion of the interested population. This is the primary reason that this Internet multimedia course has been developed. Additional courses will follow so that everyone who is interested can access knowledge and skills about aging from anywhere in the world.


The Aging of the Nation

We are living in an aging society, one in which the older population is increasing in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the whole population. This increase leads to societal developments that are of interest to college students, middle aged adults, and older people. Most of these people are already experiencing the outcome of aging through parents and grandparents.

The rising numbers of older individuals will impact many areas of society; health care, social services, income maintenance programs, corporate benefits, advertising, new products, community facilities, and politics. Older people are increasingly able to contribute to society through employment, volunteerism, and political leadership. Studying gerontology will give you both a personal understanding of the aging process and a global understanding of its impact on our society.

Gerontology and Geriatrics

The terms gerontology and geriatrics are often confused. Gerontology is the study of the processes of aging (literally, "ology" means the study of; "gero" is a Greek term referring to elders). Although aging begins before birth, most people who study gerontology are concerned with change in middle age and later life.

Gerontology is multidisciplinary, that is, it includes the perspectives of disciplines that are concerned with the physical, mental, and social aspects of life. Thus, gerontology includes studies of the physical body, intellectual ability, personality, family relations, employment and retirement, economics in later life, government programs, crimes against the elderly, ethical issues of extending life, housing arrangements, health care, mental health, volunteerism, and community programs.

Gerontology specialties are developing in such fields as law, corrections, community studies, human services, library sciences, counseling, education, business, housing, and government. It is likely that over time, many of these gerontological professional specialties will receive public recognition.

Geriatrics is a specialty within such fields as medicine, pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, and clinical social work. It includes the study of health and disease in later life and the care and treatment of older persons. While gerontology and geriatrics have differing emphases, they both have the goal of understanding aging so that persons can be helped to maximize their functioning and achieve the highest quality of life.

The process of aging can also be studied as part of a liberal arts approach to education - to understand and to use in your personal life by aging well, helping older relatives and friends, and understanding current social phenomenon. It can be useful in your professional practice, as well as to help you appreciate, understand, and know about aging.

The Study of Aging

There has been a long history of interest in the aging process, especially regarding the extension of youth and the prolonging of life. This interest is manifested today in skin creams, face lifts, exercise clubs, and fad diets. Today's society places tremendous emphasis on youth, which is commonly glorified. Individuals generally do not want to grow old. There seems to be a fear of aging, which is often based on inaccurate or inadequate information regarding the process. This fear is sometimes expressed as ageism or stereotyping of the older population.

Ageism is the discrimination against an individual based on his/her age. Most of us probably hold some negative views of aging and these need to be examined and dispelled if they are found to be inaccurate. For example, when characteristics of the older population are listed, they are generally physical or mental descriptions and are usually negative.

Examples include:

"wrinkled old prune"
"crochety old man"
"set in their ways"
"can't teach an old dog new tricks"
"talks about health problems too much"


The Meaning of Being Old

While chronological age is a useful measure of aging, it is not very accurate when it is used to predict the level of health, activity, or intellectual functioning of an individual. Any group of older persons will show great diversity, and chronological age is not a good predictor of functional ability. Some people don't function very well at age 60 while others are active and involved at 90. Gerontologists often describe older people by categories, such as the young-old, the old-old, and the oldest-old. However, not all older people fit precisely into these categories. But, they are useful in describing the functioning of groups of older people.

Characteristics of an Aging Nation

While Americans have long thought of our nation as youthful, Census Bureau data for the twentieth century clearly show that, on average, we are living longer. Life expectancy is now 79 for women and 72 for men and the length of life is expected to continue to increase. Most of the growth in life expectancy has occurred at the younger ages because of the reduction in childhood diseases. Acute diseases are now less likely to kill people than in the past. People today are more likely to die of chronic diseases in old age. This increase in life expectancy has resulted in a substantial increase in the size of the older population and the proportion of the total population that is old. For instance, the 65+ age group in the United States increased from 4% of the population in 1900 to 12.7% (32 million individuals) by 1990.


The fastest growing segment of the population, is the group over age 85. They increased from 123,000 (0.2% of the population) in 1900 to 3,254,000 (1.3%) in 1990. The oldest-old represent 10% of the 65+ population, while the young-old represent 58%. By 2050, the oldest-old will represent 22% of the total older population. In addition, the number of centenarians (individuals over the age of 100) will increase from 61,000 to 100,000 by the year 2050.


Future Growth

The growth of the older population to date is modest when compared to expected future developments, especially after the year 2010 when the first of the baby boom generation will begin to reach age 65.

By the year 2020, there will be 52,067,000 persons over age 65 (17.7% of the population), and the 85+ population will have reached 6,651,000 (2.3%). When projected to the year 2050, the 85+ population will reach 15,287,000 or 5.1% of the total United States population.

Another way of showing the tremendous growth of the older population is to examine changes in the median age of the overall population. In 1970, the median age was 28, while by 1990 the median had increased to 33 and is expected to go to 36 by 2000 and 40 by 2010.

Reliance of the Old on the Young

The dependency ratio is another measure of the age of the population and one that helps evaluate the ability of a nation to adapt to an aging population. The dependency ratio is the relationship between those who are employed (or of employable age) and those who are unemployed (or not of employable age). These ratios can be presented in regard to the old or the young population. The old age dependency, ratio which compares persons over the age of 65 to those between the ages of 21 and 64, has gone from .1 (or 10%) in 1920 to .18 in 1980 and will be .22 in 2010. This shows that an increased burden will be placed on the working population to support the older population.

Aging Around the World

Population aging is not limited to the U.S. and other developed nations. Most developing countries are also experiencing it although the proportion of older people varies widely. Every month the net number of people over age 60 in the world increases by more than 1,000,000 persons, and 70% of them are in developing countries.

In fact, the majority of older people live in developing countries which are increasingly concerned about the family, social, and economic implications of such demographic change.

Almost all areas of the world are experiencing increases in median age and numbers of older people. In 1980, there were 259 million older people, growing to 761 million by 2025. Developing nations have a lower percentage of individuals above the age of 65, for example Africa and South Asia have approximately 3% of their populations over the age of 65. However by 2025, only about 28% of the world's elderly will reside in developed countries.

Developed nations currently have low fertility rates, as compared with developing countries. As a result, the dependency ratio is much lower in these countries. In Japan, there are 4.5 workers for each old person today. This dependency ratio is expected to drop to 2 workers per old person by 2030.

This worldwide increase in the older population will have effects on social security systems, costs of health care and social services, and pension programs. As a result, incentives will be needed to promote later retirement. Allowing more immigration of younger persons is one potential solution to increase the proportion of younger individuals, thus lowering the dependency ratio.


Besides being functionally diverse, the older population includes extensive differences in ethnicity, culture, language, economics, religion, sexual orientation, values, and expectations. In the United States, diversity continues to expand because minority ethnic and racial groups are growing more rapidly than the white population.

Because older people are different from each other, a variety of programs, products, and services that are responsive to their interests and needs are required. For instance, one older person may be selecting the type of vacation to take, while another may be choosing a nursing home, and a third may be looking for a job that will lead to another career.

Minority Groups

Ethnic minorities make up 15% of the older individual population. While the percentage of all older people will increase in the future, minority older groups will increase faster than will whites. For instance, only 8% of Blacks are 65+, but they are the fastest growing segment of the Black population. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority aged group. Currently, only 4.7% of Hispanics are 65+ but this percentage will rise rapidly over the next few years.

While 64% of individuals age 65+ have completed high school, the number of Blacks and Hispanics is even lower. The young-old are more highly educated than the old-old. They have education approximately equal to that of younger cohorts.


There are still many mistaken beliefs about older people. For example, the assumption that they are unusual if they are active and in good health; that they are different from the rest of the population, mentally incompetent, inefficient and should not be in the work force; socially isolated from their families, and that they are physically, socially, and economically disadvantaged. These stereotypes are frequently accepted by older people and influence their self-view, causing some people to deny that they are aging or behave in the way they think old people should behave.

Changing Attitudes

Intergenerational experiences tend to reduce ageist attitudes. Examples of programs that have been successful include Foster Grandparents, house sharing, Phone Pals for latchkey kids and the recent PAL project conducted at USC. Gerontology course work can also lead to greater understandings. Positive media portrayals of the aged can also help achieve a clearer picture of aging. Similarly, advertising can impact society's view of aging.


* Gerontology is a relatively new field of study that is growing rapidly and is now available in half of the colleges in the nation.

* Gerontology can be studied from the vantage point of a professional attempting to help older people, a scientist learning new things about aging, or a student who is simply interested in the topic.

* Gerontology is of increasing interest because there is a growing number of older persons and that number will increase greatly after 2020.

* Gerontology studies in the past attempted to show the universality of aging; today the emphasis is on the diversity of people who are old.

* Gerontology is the study of aging across the lifespan and is not exclusively the study of people who are old.

* There are many stereotypes and myths are inaccurate by their nature about aging and old people, and those incorrect perceptions need to be corrected through education.

Introduction Part 2

Return to Table of Contents