Teaching gerontology in high school

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Knowing what must be done does away with fear.

Rosa Parks

Our demographics are changing — we've added more longevity to our species since 1900 than all of history prior. Almost everybody is behind the curve on this — institutions, government and individuals. So how do we make a dent in our overwhelmingly youth-oriented society?

Recently I was in a meeting with Sandy Pastore, director of the Oswego Senior Center. Sandy is working on a project that will adjust the Illinois high school curriculum so as to include gerontology.

My friend George scoffs at this idea. He asks, "Why do we want to teach high school kids about old people?" with a grimace on his face, as if older people have cooties. EEEWW.

Many high schools have early childhood education programs. The idea is to introduce high school students to careers in childhood education, social work, pediatrics or to influence their understanding of the arts or literature.

Early childhood classes in high school are acceptable to George because, in our culture, young = good. Not so for gerontology classes because — right, you guessed it — in our culture old = bad.

The number of older people in our country is on the rise: In 2010, there were 40.3 million people age 65 and above, comprising 13% of our overall population. (This total is 12 times the number it was in 1900 when this group constituted only 4.1% of the population.) By 2050, projections indicate the population over 65 will be 20.9% of the population.

One reason we need to introduce gerontology into our high school curriculum is that the aging of our population is changing where future jobs are. The numbers speak for themselves.

For example, consider these two trends: First, one of the top employment sectors for males in the U.S. is driving or servicing vehicles. Given the development of self-driving cars and robotics, the number of jobs available in this sector is expected to decline over the next 30 years. (Last Thursday, Kroger, the largest U.S. supermarket chain by sales and stores, announced it is developing the world's first driverless grocery deliveries.) 

Second, given the increasing longevity we are experiencing, geriatric-related jobs are expected to increase dramatically over this same time frame.

So let's do our high school students (i.e. our grandchildren) a favor and include gerontology in their curriculum. This will help prepare them for the employment terrain of their lifetimes — geriatric social work and health care (geriatricians, geriatric psychologists and psychiatrists, nurses, CNAs, researchers), caregivers, community planning, financial services, engineering, architecture, government, marketing, etc.

Besides a better prepared workforce, teaching high school students about the "older people" elephant in the room can help those younger people develop a healthier outlook on their own aging. Also, it will create a workforce that better understands cultural and ethnic diversity and how to build rapport and connect with others.

Teaching gerontology to high school students can, as Sandy Pastore says, "positively change their perceptions of age and ability through understanding how individuals are adaptive and resilient throughout life."

That's a legacy we should all strive to leave.

Marc Blesoff is a former Oak Park village trustee, co-founder of the Windmills softball organization, co-creator of Sunday Night Dinner, a retired criminal defense attorney, and a novice beekeeper. He currently facilitates Conscious Aging Workshops and Wise Aging Workshops in the Chicago area.

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Lydia Manning from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: July 4th, 2018 4:46 PM

Excellent article! Please know that we at the Center for Gerontology/Gerontology Program at Concordia University Chicago along with Pam Mahn at Oak Park Township Senior Services are working to make this happen at Oak Park River Forest High School.

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