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How Can You Benefit from a Gerontology Degree Online?
Online gerontology degrees and certificates are offered by colleges and universities at the bachelors, masters, and doctoral levels. Gerontology is a broad field focused on helping an aging population with their needs in healthcare, psychology, economics, and socialization.
Earning an online gerontology degree could support a variety of career paths, from bedside patient care to organizational roles in public, social, and nonprofit organizations focused on helping the elderly and their families. In many cases, these degree and certificate programs may intersect with other related fields and skill areas, which opens up the academic and professional paths you could take.
What Is Gerontology?
Gerontology is the study of aging, both in a scientific context, and regarding people’s experience of ageing in society. Gerontologists are professionals dedicated to serving the needs of an aging population. Gerontologists aim to help the elderly maintain their independence and quality of life by accessing the services they need. They work directly with the elderly and their families, in roles as diverse as geriatric nursing, gerontology social work, counseling, public policy, and more.
Because of the broad-ranging nature of these roles, online gerontology degree programs are a diverse lot. Each program reflects the goals and approaches of that particular school, not to mention the type of gerontology careers the program in question is designed to support.
Online gerontology degree programs tend to be multidisciplinary in nature. Gerontology degree online programs might include content from disciplines as wide ranging as law and policy, business administration, healthcare, and psychology. Online gerontology degree programs cover any topics relevant to helping others thrive through the end of their lives.
Healthcare and Gerontology
If you’re looking for a program that specifically addresses the medical needs of aging adults, programs could run the gamut between focusing exclusively on a certain type of bedside care, to emphasizing managerial and organizational skills, or surveying the broad scope of the healthcare industry as it impacts the elderly.
When choosing a program, you might take one of two basic paths.
- Geriatrics programs
Online geriatrics degree programs tend to focus exclusively on the medical needs of aging adults. Programs discuss issues such as how to identify and treat those medical concerns, and bedside care skills that are specific to elderly patients. In many cases, geriatrics programs are offered as a specific type of medical program, e.g. geriatrics nurse practitioner programs, or geriatric medicine, for example.
One important note regarding geriatrics: If your goal in pursuing this type of degree is to practice medicine in some capacity, such as a nurse practitioner or physician, you may need to pursue an advanced degree as well as state-issued licensure. The school you choose to attend should have more information on the type of requirements you might expect, so reach out to them with any questions.i
- Healthcare-oriented gerontology programs
In addition to medicine and bedside care, gerontology programs look at topics such as how the elderly access medical care, the challenges and concerns of managing a healthcare organization that serves the elderly, and how to advocate for an aging population in a healthcare-related setting. This program may also allow students to focus their efforts toward specific career paths such as managing a healthcare organization or a facility for the elderly, dealing with the legal and policy issues of healthcare for the aged, patient advocacy, and more. Compared to geriatrics programs,healthcare gerontology programs are typically somewhat broader in scope.
Public & Social Services and Gerontology
These types of online gerontology degree programs focus on the social and economic challenges faced by aging adults. Courses may talk about how communities can help aging adults overcome some of those challenges and maintain some independence. These programs may touch on—or even focus on—a few different aspects of this complex issue. While distinct in some ways, each of these areas overlap in notable ways.
- Social Workii
Some online schools may actually offer gerontological social work degree programs. However, even if that’s not the case, many gerontology curriculums cover this topic in some capacity. Social work within gerontology has to do with helping the elderly adjust to the problems that arise as they age, access the public services they need, and maintain their overall quality of life on a day-to-day basis. Some gerontology social workers may work to help aging adults stay independent and continue living on their own or with limited assistance. Others might work within residential facilities, helping to ensure that each resident has access to the resources and programs they need. Social workers may also work with the individual’s family, encouraging them to help their aging relative. Some social workers may also help the family cope with the emotional, organizational, and financial responsibilities that result from an elderly relative’s death.
Some online gerontology degree programs dedicate time to developing students' client advocacy skills. Gerontology advocacy could entail working on behalf of individuals in various settings (legal, healthcare, economic) to ensure they receive the services they are entitled to, and are treated fairly. This can also be called geriatric care management.iii Some gerontology advocates work in policy to lobby on behalf of groups to encourage legal changes that protect the aging population.
- Public Services and Nonprofits
There are a variety of public and nonprofit organizations that exist to serve the needs of aging adults in various capacities, both within local communities and on a national level. Gerontology programs discuss how these programs operate on an organizational level, how they interact with one another and the community, how they’re funded, how individuals may access their services, and more. Some programs may emphasize the organizational aspects of managing these organizations in order to enable advocates or social workers to help more people.
- Public Policy & Legal Issues
Some gerontology programs focus on the legal protections and challenges that are faced by the elderly. This topic could be broad-reaching since areas of concern include healthcare issues, economic challenges, loss of independence, and even issues related to death. Courses aim to develop students' familiarity with existing policy and law as it concerns the elderly, as well as developing strategies to lobby or advocate to effect change for that population. At the undergraduate level, this type of course may be offered in conjunction with human services topics. At the graduate level, some students might choose to pursue a degree like Elder Law, which is a primarily legal degree offered by some law schools.
Psychology and Gerontology
Aging adults face a number of life changes that can impact them psychologically. Examples could be as wide ranging as biological changes and cognitive decline, the deaths of friends and loved ones, and the increasing difficulty in remaining independent and taking care of oneself. As such, some psychology or counseling professionals may opt to specialize in helping the elderly cope with these changes.
A gerontology degree program with a psychology orientation might discuss:
- An increased risk of depression faced by aging people
- Grief and loss
- Memory loss and cognitive decline
- Isolation and loneliness
- Aging-related behavioral changes
- The psychological impact of medical decline
One major influencer in how a psychology-focused gerontology program is put together and what it covers is the type of degree being issued. If it’s an advanced degree in psychology or mental health counseling, for example, with a concentration in gerontology, the program is likely to be somewhat clinical in nature, and focus primarily on the roles, responsibilities, and expertise related to practicing psychology or counseling. If it’s a gerontology degree not issued by a school of psychology, the curriculum might still touch on these issues in a somewhat less clinical light. If your goal is to work with the elderly as a practitioner of psychology, be aware that you may need to pursue at least a masters degree in addition to certification or licensure. (The specifics may vary by state.)
Online Bachelors Degree in Gerontology
Earning an online bachelors degree in gerontology may support entry-level employment in a variety of gerontology roles. A few examples include nursing in a geriatrics setting, case management, care management, community outreach, and more. Some online gerontology bachelors programs may be tailored to support specific types of careers, or allow students the freedom to tailor their coursework accordingly. However, most of these programs tend to be fairly broad, aiming to cover the basics rather than specializing.
Some examples of course topics you might encounter in your bachelors program of choice include the following.
- Lifespan development
- Human Services Policy and Ethics
- Case Management
- The Psychology of Aging
- Aging and Wellness
- Epidemiology in Aging Populations
The specifics of a bachelors degree in gerontology curriculum may be influenced by the type of school issuing the degree, or the type of degree being earned. For example, if gerontology is rolled in with human services and policy programs, it’s likely to look somewhat different from gerontology programs in schools of psychology or healthcare. Similarly, an online bachelors in geriatrics would likely have a narrower healthcare focus.
Some online bachelors in gerontology programs may include requirements that cannot be completed via the internet. That could include field observations, field experience, or research presentations. These types of requirements may vary on an individual basis. For more information on this and other program requirements, reach out to the school in question.
Online Masters Degree in Gerontology
Online masters in gerontology programs often combine advanced expertise on aging and aging-related issues with the leadership and organizational skills to facilitate care. In many (though not all) cases, these programs build on prior experience studying or working in gerontology, and aim to enhance an existing skill set rather than going over the basics again.
As such, masters level programs may have more opportunity for specialization than at the bachelors level. Masters in gerontology programs may award a number of types of degrees depending on the type of school attended, the nature of the curriculum, and the experience offered by the program. Let's take a look at some examples listed below, keeping in mind that these are only a few examples of the different paths one might take while studying gerontology at the masters level.
- Master of Arts in Gerontology, or Master of Science in Gerontology
Two of the most commonly offered masters degree types in any field, including Gerontology, are the MA and MS. MS programs may place a stronger emphasis on the scientific aspects of the aging process, while MA programs may emphasize organizational skills and management. However, that’s likely to differ on an individual basis between programs, so reach out to the school for details.
- Master of Science in Nursing/MSN in Geriatrics or Gerontology
Online MSN in Geriatrics programs come in a few different flavors. Each of these is designed to support certain types of nursing. Some may be aimed at experienced Registered Nurses who want to expand their skill set for their current position or begin working with an elderly patient population. Other programs may focus on nurse leadership roles in aging care, such as being a supervisor in a nursing home. Still more masters programs may focus on helping nurses work toward Geriatric Nurse Practitioner roles. Whichever route you choose, programs are generally focused on helping elderly patients remain healthy and comfortable, on managing medical conditions in aging patients, and on bedside care skills.
- MSW in Gerontology
MSW stands for Master of Social Work. Like the name implies, these programs generally center on helping aging adults access the types of public and social welfare services they need to thrive. These programs may emphasize advocacy skills, touch on policy issues, and discuss the medical, socioeconomic, and psychological challenges that, in the field, their clients may face. MSW in Gerontology programs may also be designed to help students prepare for licensure requirements in the state in which the school is based. Specific requirements may vary by state, so make sure you follow up about the requirements where you want to work.
Additional Requirements for Online Gerontology Masters Programs
Some online gerontology masters programs may have a final project requirement. In most cases, this would be either a thesis or capstone project. A thesis is generally a review of existing research literature in the field, and shows the program that you’re familiar with and understand gerontology thought research and can draw conclusions from it. A capstone may be similar, but may also be a more practical project or case study, demonstrating professional skills. While many programs may enable students to complete and submit these projects online, some may require a campus visit to present in person.
For more information about any particular degree program, reach out to the school in question.
Online Doctorate in Gerontology
Online gerontology doctoral programs may vary widely. They may either be research or practitioner-based, depending on the concentration area, the type of degree, and other factors. Some online doctoral programs may require, in addition to prior education like a masters in gerontology, a certain amount or type of experience working in the field, or prior research experience. Specific prerequisites may depend on the program in question.
A few example doctorates one might earn in gerontology include the following.
- PhD in Gerontology
While some may be practitioner-based, many Online Gerontology PhD programs tend to look toward research and thought leadership roles. The curriculum for those types of programs might focus on performing research into the medical, psychological, and social impacts of aging. Programs may also discuss the impact of policy on aging citizens, or how to evaluate efficacy of programs designed to help them. Non-research oriented Gerontology PhD programs focus on the leadership skills needed to run organizations or care facilities targeted toward ageing adults.
- DNP in Gerontology or Geriatrics
A Doctor of Nursing Practice in Gerontology or Geriatrics program would most often be aimed toward Geriatric Nurse Practitioners. However, it’s possible some programs may instead be designed to accommodate MSN nurses who instead focus on either leadership or bedside care. A DNP is a terminal degree within nursing, often practice-oriented, focused on clinical patient care, or emphasizing leadership and administrative nursing roles. Since they’re designed for experienced nurses with related advanced degrees, they tend to assume that each student already has a solid foundation of skills and knowledge of the field.
The above degree types may not be an exhaustive list of options. Geriatrics or Gerontology professionals seeking doctorate-level education may pursue a variety of other directions. For example, some people might choose to enroll in an MD program to become a practicing physician who specializes in adult geriatric medicine and end of life care.iv Others might choose to pursue a dual-title PhD program and study psychology in conjunction with gerontology.
Online Geriatrics Doctoral Program Additional Requirements
One important thing to think about when working toward your gerontology doctorate online: What type of final project is required?
If you’re attending a program that emphasizes research skills, you’re likely to be asked to complete and present a dissertation. This could in some cases require a visit to campus to present in person. Some more professional-oriented programs, such as those focused on administrative roles, might have a capstone requirement. This could take a variety of forms, from scholarly research, to a case study, to a portfolio piece mimicking the work one might do in the field.
Other potential requirements could be related to field work, which would likely not be able to be completed online. However, specific projects, graduation requirements, and other details vary by program and school.
For more information on these and other potential online gerontology doctoral programs, reach out to the schools in question.
Online Gerontology Certificate Programs
A variety of gerontology certificate programs are offered online at the undergraduate or graduate level. Some students choose to earn gerontology certificates online to enhance their undergraduate or graduate degrees, to further specialize their skills, or to support a move into gerontology-related roles in the field.
While some online gerontology certificates are offered at the bachelors level, graduate certificates (such as post-masters) may be somewhat more common. As with most certificate programs, online gerontology certificates tend to include fewer courses or credits, enabling them potentially to be earned in comparably less time. Because of the wide variety of focus areas for these graduate certificates, curriculum details may vary considerably. For more information, reach right out to the school.
Other Considerations for Studying Gerontology Online
Earning a gerontology degree online could be an attractive option for an experienced gerontology professional in search of continuing education, someone who just likes online classes better, or a busy parent who needs to balance their degree with family obligations. If you're a busy parent you might also want to check out these Myths About the Working Parent.
However, studying gerontology online could come with a few unique considerations.
Chief among these: offline elements. While many programs are offered one hundred percent online, it’s not always the case. Sometimes, you might be asked to complete an observation, or even get on-the-job experience through an internship placement. Things like that would need to be factored into your schedule, so it’s useful to know about these things in advance. You might also want to ask about how these are organized. Will they be arranged on your behalf, or do you have the freedom to set it all up yourself?
For that matter, if you’re new to gerontology altogether, put some thought into your desired career path. Depending on what you want to do—for example, become a geriatrics nurse, a social worker, or provide counseling services—your state might require certification or licensure, or another prerequisite. If you’re attending an online program based in another state, it might be a good idea to compare those requirements with your selected program to make sure they align.
Find Online Gerontology Degree Programs
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- Begin by narrowing down your options by selecting the appropriate degree type.
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[i] bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-4 | bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm#tab-4 [ii] payscale.com/research/US/Job=Geriatric_Social_Worker/Salary | [iii] payscale.com/research/US/Job=Geriatric_Care_Manager/Salary | [iv] payscale.com/research/US/Job=Physician_%2f_Doctor%2c_Geriatric/Salary
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