A little more than a year ago Mercer County Community College introduced a certificate program in gerontology, aimed at helping healthcare workers deal better with the growing — and rapidly changing — senior population.

Shirley Roberts, a community education worker at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, decided to go for it. A regular aspect of her job involves dealing with a diverse, but senior-heavy, clientele, and Roberts felt she could use a leg up in dealing with them.

In an attempt to diversify and stay relevant, professionals of all stripes are returning to school. For Roberts, that means staying on top of the issues seniors face and the changing perspectives involved in a generational shift.

The ingrained picture of the little old lady, polite to a fault and trusting to the utmost, is no longer the norm, Roberts says. Baby Boomers are in their mid-60s now and are steadily cruising toward the day when they will outnumber the people they might still think of as old. What that means to people in Roberts’ position is a marked shift in attitude. The generation that fought World War II, she says, is characterized by a certain deference to authority. “People will say, ‘Well the doctor gave it to me, so I’ll take it,’” she says.

The children of these people, however, having grown up disappointed and betrayed by the ruling class, don’t just accept anything. “Baby Boomers are much more forthcoming,” Roberts says. “They’ll Google things. They’ll ask, ‘What’s this medicine for; what are the side effects?’ We are much more educated and willing to intervene.”

That “we” is there because Roberts herself is a Boomer. At 54, she has been with RWJ for seven years — which might lead one to perhaps think that she got a late start. Well, she did. Roberts spent 25 years working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office before deciding to return to school at age 40. Even then, she had no clue what to do with herself.

She did know that she wanted to get a college degree, something she had been waiting to do when her children finally got out on their own. “I just wanted to be educated,” she says. Having grown up in Trenton, where her father was a police officer, she graduated from St. Anthony’s High School in 1973 without worrying about the college life. Slowly, though, the urge got the better of her and she went to school, earning her bachelor’s in sociology and then a master’s in counseling from TCNJ in 2001.

Though she had no specific career goal in mind, Roberts says she was motivated into healthcare counseling for two reasons — she had always been the type of person everyone told their problems to, and she had spent a quarter-century working in a doctor’s office. What she saw there was not simply medical diagnoses, but the psychological effects of those diagnoses. “The mental aspects were not delved into at all,” she says. Doctors treated the physical, but an emotionally devastated patient was largely left to himself.

Things were especially bad for older folks, who not only did not know anything medically, they didn’t even know they could ask about it. A simple truth was: “Older people often have multiple medical problems, and they need a good counselor.”

Having realized the need to understand more than just being a good shoulder for older folks, Roberts signed up for the Mercer program’s inaugural session last year. She says she is familiar with the basic courses — it takes eight to earn the certificate and covers the field from the process of aging through the elder’s role in society, cognitive impairment, and a holistic approach to the elder lifestyle — but that it is nice to get all the information in one focused package. "It’s good to know we were on the right track,” she says of RWJ’s senior outreach program.

The big advantage that the course has given her is a deeper understanding of self-management. Treatment for afflictions is not merely about medicines, she says, it is about taking care of the whole picture — how you live, what you eat, and how you balance all the aspects of your life. It is also about education — not just for an illness itself, but knowing where to look for answers. And seeing that you get them.

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