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New Center for Gerontology to serve aging population

by Mark Schwerin

June 13, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of gerontology center.
Gerontology program revived
KALAMAZOO--To better meet the needs of the rapidly growing population of older adults, the Center for Gerontology at Western Michigan University has opened, reviving the University's gerontology program.

A reception for the new center is set for 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, and will include remarks by WMU President John M. Dunn and Provost Timothy Greene. Founding faculty fellows of the center also will be introduced during the reception in Room 4010 of the College of Health and Human Services building.

The center is part of an effort to rekindle the training of both graduate and undergraduate students to serve older adults as well as research aimed at the aging population. Part of its mission is to provide an undergraduate minor in gerontology and a gerontology graduate certificate.

The demand for healthcare workers with training in gerontology is growing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 874,000 additional workers in the field will be needed to meet the increased demand during the next 10 years.

The center revives WMU's gerontology program, which had been spearheaded by Dr. Ellen Page-Robin, professor emeritus of community health services and former director of the Certificate Program in Gerontology. That program was eliminated in 2004 due to budget cuts. Dr. Earlie Washington, dean of the WMU College of Health and Human Services, was instrumental in bringing back the gerontology program.

"As the number of older people increases, there will be a corresponding increase in the demand for health and human service professionals who can serve them," Washington says. "Having an adequate supply of professionals in the U.S. depends largely on the availability of high quality educational programs that prepare practitioners in disciplines that impact services in aging. 

"Each of the programs in the college plays a significant role in services to older adults. Establishing the Center for Gerontology will enable the college to enhance the preparation of students to work with older individuals. A well-trained workforce serving older individuals in Southwest Michigan and throughout the U.S. is vital to the welfare of our older citizens."

The WMU Board of Trustees approved the new center in July 2010. Dr. Janet Hahn was hired as center coordinator in December and says it will focus on three areas--education, research and community service. The center will serve as a catalyst for health-related research on aging and actively pursue external funding as well as educational programs and service learning activities.

In addition to teaching, faculty will continue to pursue research projects in gerontology, says Hahn, who has spent most of her career in the healthcare field and most recently evaluated community health programs for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. She also coordinated a geriatric education center at Midwestern University in Illinois. Hahn is a sociologist by training, obtaining her doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota in 1992 and bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College in 1982.

"I like older people," Hahn says. "As an undergraduate student, I found out that I believed a lot of the prevailing myths about aging and decided to help others learn about aging."

Among those myths is that older people are depressed much of the time, are unhealthy and can't learn, Hahn says.

Since starting on the job, Hahn has been busy pursuing grant opportunities and forging connections with the local community to develop research partnerships.

"Research is a big growth area," Hahn says. "We hope to partner with the new medical school in research and really all areas."

Hahn hopes to have the gerontology minor approved by the end of the year. The next step will be to roll out the graduate level certificate program.

"I think there's a high level of interest in both," Hahn says.

The minor will pair nicely with just about any major, says Hahn, who is teaching a class herself--Introduction to Aging Studies.

"It would go well with sociology, psychology, even business," she says, "because this is an aging population and everybody would benefit in knowing more about aging."

For more information, visit the WMU Center for Gerontology online.