As the Baby Boomer generation moves toward retirement, with people living longer and stronger, the perspective of aging in America must change. A unique graduate program at at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County (UMBC) goes beyond academics to reach its goal of educating a community of leaders who will improve society by enhancing the lives of older adults.
Galina Madjaroff (Lecturer) and Kevin Heffner (Director of External Relations) of the Erickson School are two of those people.
While working on a Masters degree herself, Galina (GM) enthusiastically teaches an introductory class on aging and job prospects in that field. Kevin (KH) is the Director of External Relations for the Erickson School and speaks more to the business side of working with thought leaders and administrators in the field. We spoke with them about their backgrounds and what factors initially drew them to the field of elder-care.
The first question we asked concerned the personal and professional experiences that drew them toward working in the elder-care industry generally and at the Erickson School specifically.
Galina says her interest began growing up in an intergenerational home in Bulgaria. “There, elders are looked upon as people with wisdom that young people can learn from.”
When she came to the US, she knew she wanted a career that would allow her to help elders. “I started working in the Erickson School and discovered the Management of Aging Services Major. I started to sit in on classes here and there and fell in love with the major and with the field. Erickson School was doing revolutionary work, because young people don’t think about aging in a positive way. Though I don’t often work directly with elders, I think it’s important to educate young people about aging and the aging process.”
Kevin’s entry into the field was based on a relationship with his grandfather. “When his health began to deteriorate and he was moved to a nursing home, I was taken aback at the conditions there. I became really concerned about the prospects of others being in that environment.”
At the start of his new vocation, Kevin worked for an organization called The Beacon Institute (MD), a nonprofit educational institution that provides education for professionals in the field of aging services. This group is an affiliate of the Maryland Chapter of the American Association of Homes and Services in Aging.
“I fell in love with the field and the people who so selflessly serve. One of the things that became clear to me in the early years at the Beacon Institute is that you really have to have a heart for elders in order to last a longer period of time. It really energized me to come to work every day – to interact with them and to give them tools to better care for, better serve, older adults.”
During that period, Erickson Retirement Communities was the largest member organization of the association. Kevin got to know John and Mark Erickson, and developed a relationship with them. So when John made the gift to found the Erickson School at UMBC, it was natural for him to do some of the same relationship development and educational support that he had done at the Beacon Institute. “But on a larger scale,” he says, “I was able to touch more people and to be a bigger part of developing leaders for the next generation of aging services.
Given that you both are involved at a school training others in and for this professional field, what do you see in/about younger people that gets them involved in elder care? What do you think draws more experienced and older students back for more training?
Galina feels it’s the number of jobs available that initially draws younger students. “It really sparks their interest when we talk about the kinds of ways they can utilize the skills and opportunities in aging services industries. We tell them that 78 million Boomers will soon be turning 65, and these will be their customers. Students are attracted to that possibility, and see it as an opportunity.”
Kevin also believes students are drawn to the possibilities. “They understand in large part that to have a broader understanding of aging issues is going to help them in their current position or to help them climb the job-ladder, or even to transition into aging services. Students seem to understand that aging services is not just wheelchairs and bedpans, but all kinds of entrepreneurial opportunities in travel and leisure and a whole host of other areas around health; they understand that working with the aging can bring positive things for their careers.” Galina’s and Kevin’s work at The Erickson School is an effort to foster those positive things for the younger and older generations.
Galina and Kevin both feel people who work in the field of aging services are there because they care about helping older people and making the world a better place for them. “It’s a relatively new field,” Kevin says, “and the leaders are still accessible and willing to share their wisdom and knowledge. There’s not the proprietary approach you might find in other, more established, fields. It’s wonderfully refreshing to have such access to people who want to make the world a better place for older adults.”
For more about The Erickson School’s programs, view this video produced by MKCREATIVE for the school last fall:
What has been one of the unexpected benefits or pleasures you have found working in the elder-care community?
Galina ranks her role as a teacher of “Aging 100,” an introduction to the history of the Baby Boomer Generation and how they have revolutionized aging at the top of her list. “I’ve had students who have had good experiences with grandparents or neighbors but who, after taking the course, shared that they are no longer afraid of aging. It’s okay to age. It’s okay to be older and to build those experiences. It’s a breath of fresh air to see someone really young – 17 or 18 years old and should be living in the moment – can still embrace what we talk about in the course. Aging is not a time of decline. It is a time to enjoy.”
For Kevin, one of the most exciting things has been seeing the development of the Masters students at Erickson School from arrival through graduation. For example, Kevin says, “we had a student who was a career changer and entered our first Masters Cohort just exploring, and wanting to see if this field was a good fit. In the first several months of her program, one of the other Masters students hired her to be a Director of Community Excellence, which she’s still doing today…It’s really rewarding for me when I see those kinds of things happen. To see the transformations that take place for students, the quantifiable advancement that takes place, and the entrepreneurial things that some of the students are doing in their projects really make me happy.”
On the other side, what has been one of the unexpected challenges for you in working with that community, and how have you worked through it?
Galina says her biggest challenge is wanting to be engaging and inspiring about the topic while working with young students who sign up for courses about aging. “There’s such a stigma in regards to the elderly and what age is. Having to recruit young people and encouraging them to look into the field can be tough.”
Kevin’s challenge has been the problems of the macro-economy, as well as the challenge of recruiting students during a terribly difficult economic downturn. “I think most of the people in the US understand the overall demographic trends and what that means for career opportunities in aging services. But it’s a challenge, because of the economy, to recruit and have students see the long-term vision and opportunities when there are so many short-term challenges. Fortunately, because the demographics are so overwhelming – and folks are not going to stop aging just because of a difficult economy – they’re coming whether the economy gets better or not. We’ve got to find ways to serve the aging and meet their needs better. I think that’s the message that the Erickson School is trying to deliver.”
How have you used the social media and digital communications technologies that are so comfortable for younger people while working with older citizens?
Galina finds technology important for teaching, an incredible tool for reaching individuals on the other side of the country and even around the world. “To me, the most important technology is launching the school on the web and making us accessible by a huge population. We’re even thinking of launching a Boomer-specific course online. We’re really seeing a huge demand from Boomers to use the web and online content. They are buying iPads and laptops and learning about social networking. So we really want to bring our courses to them – literally in the palms of their hands.”
Her “Aging 100” course includes a section specifically dedicated to showing students how to use technology to aid older adults.
Kevin has found nothing but success using new technologies. “We’ve been able to provide some of our Executive Education courses online which has proven to be a big success. In fact, we’ve found that the leaders of aging services, those in top positions in this field, are really comfortable with technology and teaching. They’re transferring easily from using things like Powerpoint in the classroom to incorporating streaming video in online courses. Technology has really opened doors for us to share trends in aging services with a whole new audience that we hadn’t been able to reach before.”
Written by Cate Richard. Interview and additional research by Christopher Gardner.