No matter what business you’re in, you had better know how to speak to, work for, and sell to an aging population. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more than 1.1 million people age 65 or older in New Jersey as of July, 2007.

And Mercer County’s population will continue to age. In Mercer County alone the number of people over 65 is projected to increase by 24 percent in the next 10 years, according to Kay Eaton, director of development at Mercer County Community College and an instructor in the school’s inaugural gerontology certificate program. “In every walk of life, we will need a sound understanding of the general issues facing those who are aging,” Eaton says. “We will need a better understanding of who they are and what they need.”

Mercer is starting the gerontology program with several classes this fall. The introductory sessions begin on Saturday, September 27, at from 9 a.m. at the school’s West Windsor campus. Cost: $120. For more information, call 609-570-3311 or E-mail comed@mccc.edu. Other instructors are Eileen Doremus, executive director of the Mercer County Office on Aging, and Linda Martin, MCCC’s dean of science and health professions. The certificate program includes six required classes, two electives, and a final project.

“Certainly, many students will be in the health fields and careers related to caring for seniors,” Eaton says. “However, some others may enroll because they are interested in learning about the issues older people face. They can take just one or two classes and the exposure will help them in many aspects of their lives.”

The application of knowledge is wide open. Say, for example, someone sells furniture in a retail store. Learning about the needs of seniors may help that person better recommend furnishings. This knowledge leads to furniture with rounded edges, door knobs that are replaced by levers, and the use of handrails.

“When people understand the normal progression of change, they can influence the household goods and furniture, as well as many other quality of life issues, that affect an older person,” Eaton says. With this in mind, the certificate program starts with an introductory course, Process of Aging. This two-session program explores the biological, psychological, and social issues related to aging. Students will learn about demographics, trends and physical changes that accompany the aging process.

The certificate program will have non-credit classes in both the fall and spring semesters. Some courses include Aging and Society; The Adult Lifespan: Maturity to Old Age; A Holistic Approach to Aging: Nutrition, Exercise, Spirituality & Wellness; Dealing with Functional Loss and Change; and Cognitive Impairment.

“We’ll also have programs on counseling, health care, housing options, public policy, and other issues that affect our population,” she says. “What it boils down to is a variety of programs that help people look at issues that affect us all as we age.”

Launching the certificate program came out of the college’s understanding the need to prepare people who can help an aging population. There simply are not many programs to help health-care workers, senior advocates, caregivers, and others really understand the issues of aging.

But it also came through Eaton’s career development work. “I was attending the National Institute for Leadership Development’s annual conference in 2007, which was focusing on women leadership in community colleges,” she says. “Part of our training was to go back to our respective colleges and take on a task that would be out of the realm of our regular jobs and benefit our institution.” Eaton used her background in gerontology to go outside the scope of experience in the development office.

It was a natural transition for someone who holds a masters and certificate of gerontology from Syracuse. Before joining Mercer County Community College eight years ago, she held a number of jobs in which her gerontology education helped her support seniors through schools and state agencies.

“Through my own experiences, I was aware of the need for this level of information,” she says. “I felt that, looking at the huge expected need and the growing population in that age group, something had to be done. We will really need people in Mercer County who can understand the issues and relate to the aging population. Family members, customers, clients, neighbors, everyone will benefit if they take the time to learn about the needs of people in this age group.”

Eaton took on the development of the program just as she took on learning about gerontology in the first place, when she first went to Syracuse. “At the time, my own father was aging. I wanted to learn more about what was considered normal aging patterns. What I learned is, the definition of ‘normal’ includes a wide range of characteristics within the aging process.”

Using that knowledge may be self evident when it comes to social workers, health-care workers, and other traditional jobs that cater to older people. But Eaton also sees the insight helping marketers, retailers, interior designers, and many others. “When you understand functional loss and change, including the physical changes people go through after an illness or disease, it will enlighten your thinking about how people maneuver in an apartment or store,” she says. “We can make decisions and design products and services that make it easier for older people. But only when we understand the issues.”

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