Degrees & Careers in Aging
For most people, a desire to pursue a career working with the elderly is inspired by a personal, often familial, experience. With a growing elderly population, a career in aging offers plenty of job opportunities, in fields ranging from healthcare to personal finance. This guide explores various career paths in aging and highlights degrees that can take you there. Whether you’re a high school student considering college majors or a baby boomer changing careers, this guide can help you chart the right course.
Why Elder Care Is a Good Career Move
A career in elder care can be both personally and financially rewarding. There are a wide variety of careers to choose from, depending on your interests and educational background. Here are six reasons to consider working with the elderly:
In 1992, only one state (New York) reported the healthcare and social assistance sector as their largest employer. The rest of the country was dominated by manufacturing and retail jobs. By 2013, however, health care and social assistance was the biggest employer in 13 states. What changed? In short, people got older. Baby Boomers – those born in the 1940s and ‘50s – began to retire and experienced health challenges as they aged. As a result, millions of new jobs were needed to take care of this aging population.
Degrees That Lead to a Career in Aging
A gerontology degree may be what most often comes to mind for elder care, but there are dozens of degrees that can lead to a career working with the elderly. Here are some of the most popular options:
Adult Development/Human Development
Adult/Human Development programs focus on the biological, psychological and social issues that elderly people face. In many cases, an undergraduate degree is a precursor to a graduate gerontology degree. Successful graduates can become caseworkers or counselors who address the confluence of aging with other social and economic hardships.
A degree in counseling or psychology can open the doors to a range of careers working with the elderly. Tyler D. Staples, former hospice counselor and bereavement coordinator at One Community Hospice in Kansas City, says there’s a field of study for geriatric psychology but notes that it’s generally a specialty offered at the doctoral level. In Staples’ case, he earned undergraduate degrees in biology and psychology, and a master’s in counseling psychology. At the time, his goal was to become a therapist.
A bachelor’s degree in health education covers issues of nutrition, public health and health promotion. It teaches people how to assess a community’s health needs and develop programs and/or services that help those community members stay healthy and happy.
Nursing with a Specialization in Gerontology
Nurses automatically find themselves with many older patients, but those who specialize in gerontology are best placed to support that demographic. Both registered nurses and nurse practitioners can specialize in geriatric nursing. Older populations are often uncomfortable advocating for themselves, so in addition to their medical training, geriatric nurses learn valuable communication skills.
A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) program teaches students how to work with vulnerable populations, on social issues including poverty and disability. Social workers provide counseling and help clients access resources.
Career Options & Salary
Before choosing a degree program, consider what type of career in aging you want to pursue. Here is a sampling of 16 careers at varying levels, along with salary details, degree requirements and what to consider before making the leap.
Audiologist MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE :$75,920
An estimated 48 million Americans suffer some degree of hearing loss, and unsurprisingly, older populations are more likely to need hearing aids. Audiologists examine patients with hearing problems.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Doctorate in audiology, plus state licensure.
Something to think about: An audiologist needs four years of education beyond an undergraduate degree to earn a Doctor of Audiology (AuD).
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$27,520
Forty percent of nursing assistants work in nursing homes, where they take care of patients’ basic needs, including helping with bathing and eating, moving patients, and taking vital signs.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: State-approved program, plus certification through an exam.
Something to think about: Many elderly hospital patients cannot bathe or use the bathroom on their own. Certified nursing assistants must be prepared to deal with bodily fluids.
Dietician/Nutritionist MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$59,410
Since diets and lifestyles have changed from the meat and potato days of the ‘50s, many older people need nutritional advice to help them fight diabetes, cut their risk of stroke or just feel energetic in general.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Bachelor’s degree in nutrition (some states require certification or registration).
Something to think about: Populations aren’t just getting older – they’re also becoming more diverse. Nutritionists must recommend foods that are culturally appropriate for their clients.
Fitness InstructorMEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$39,210
Fitness instructors lead group classes or provide personalized training to help people meet their health goals. Because many older people have limited physical movement compared to young adults, instructors working with older clients have to design unique routines that help their clients lose fat and/or gain strength and stamina safely.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Certification from an organization such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) or American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Something to think about: While top earners can pull in more than $70,000 a year, fitness training pays only a bit more than the national average. That said, extensive formal education isn’t always required, depending on the employer.
Healthcare Social Worker MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$54,870
Social workers help people experiencing difficulties in their lives. In the healthcare setting, they often help elderly adjust to growing old, work with them to transition out of a hospital and form support groups to help them manage disease, disability or feelings of loneliness.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Bachelor of Social Work (BSW); clinical social workers require a Master of Social Work (MSW).
Something to think about: Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors in Hartford, Connecticut, notes that “the range of responsibilities for social workers continues to grow exponentially.” There are diverse opportunities for growth, but the job can be very demanding so there’s a high risk of burnout.
Home Health Aide MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$23,210
Home health aides work in the homes of the elderly, where they assist with daily tasks like bathing, housekeeping, cooking and driving. In some states they also monitor health (e.g., taking temperature and pulse) and help clients take medications.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Although home health aides typically only need a high school diploma or GED, attaining a certificate provides more routes for employment, as agencies that receive Medicare reimbursements require it.
Something to think about: The responsibilities of home health aides are somewhat like parenting. However, the pay is lower than other healthcare professions, so many home health aides work part-time work while they pursue a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) credential or another degree.
Licensed Practical Nurse / Licensed Vocational NurseMEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$45,030
Fifty percent of LPNs/LVNs go on to work in nursing facilities or home healthcare, where they monitor their patients and help with basic care. Unlike CNAs, they play a role in administering basic health care, but under the direction of a doctor.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Certificate or diploma and state licensure.
Something to think about: Practical/Vocational nursing is a good transition point on the way to becoming a registered nurse. But most will still have some overlap with CNAs.
Medical Scientist/ResearcherMEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$82,090
Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and cancer are all related to growing old. Medical researchers look for the causes of these diseases and work to develop therapies to treat them.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: PhD in biology or another life science.
Something to think about: Medical scientists may enter the field hoping to cure cancer, but individual clinical trials take years and lead to yet more clinical trials. Researchers should be prepared to spend years on incremental advances.
Occupational Therapist MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$83,200
Occupational therapists work with people with injuries, disabilities or illnesses to improve their ability to function day-to-day. They develop individualized treatment plans with specific exercises or tasks that help the body recover, adapt or strengthen.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Master’s degree in occupational therapy, plus state licensure.
Something to think about: Occupational therapists often work in hospitals and nursing homes, so they should be prepared to deal with bodily fluids. In outpatient settings, they might have to deal with wound care. Moreover, occupational therapists may find themselves working with patients who won’t improve, no matter how much therapy they get.
Patient Advocate MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$32,323
Patient advocates — many with a background in nursing or social work — help the elderly navigate the complicated healthcare and insurance industries. Patient navigators cover the same ground, but work within a hospital setting.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: The National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants provides recommended credentials, but these aren’t necessarily required to work in the field. Although formal education isn’t required, some colleges do offer programs that are related to the career, such as Sarah Lawrence College.
Something to think about: Many seniors may not see the value of paying a consultant to help them with their healthcare and insurance concerns. And because patient advocacy is a relatively new field, wages are highly variable.
Personal Care Aide MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$23,100
Like home health aides, personal care aides work with people in their homes, but they don’t do any medical tasks. Instead, they may keep their older clients company, cook and clean, and drive them places.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: High school diploma or equivalent.
Something to think about: Salaries are relatively low, but being a personal care aide can provide valuable experience and income for someone pursuing a CNA credential.
Physical Therapist MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$86,850
Like occupational therapists, physical therapists work with people who have injuries or disabilities. They tend to play a greater role in diagnosing problems but also get hands on in treating the underlying problem.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Doctor of Physical Therapy, plus state licensure; physical therapist assistants need an associate degree.
Something to think about: Physical therapy can be both emotionally and physically demanding. PTs work with people with serious physical challenges. Work may involve lifting people out of wheelchairs, for example.
Recreational Therapist MEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$47,680
Recreational therapists move beyond physical wellbeing to address the emotional and social wellness of patients. When working with the elderly, recreational therapists plan activities to keep them engaged with their community – everything from bowling and hiking to chess tournaments and movie nights. Many also use physical therapy or counseling techniques.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Bachelor’s in recreational therapy; some states require licensure, and most employers prefer employees to hold the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist credential.
Something to think about: Recreational therapists spend a lot of time on their feet. After all, the goal is to keep people active.
Registered NurseMEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$70,000
Geriatric nurses monitor older patients’ health, administer treatment, perform tests and collaborate with doctors.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Nursing diploma, associate degree in nursing or Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN).
Something to think about: Many nurses work 12-hour shifts and have to care for multiple patients simultaneously. They must be on their feet all day and be able to shift gears from patient to patient.
Rehabilitation CounselorMEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$34,860
Rehabilitation counselors help elderly clients manage the effects of diseases and disabilities. The role blends psychological counseling and support with advocacy and referrals.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, plus state license.
Something to think about: The career is more a labor of love than a lucrative occupation. Rehab counselors who work in nursing facilities take home around $30,000 a year on average, which is below the U.S. average of $37,000.
Speech-Language Pathologist/Speech TherapistMEDIAN ANNUAL WAGE:$76,610
Though best known for their work with children, speech therapists also work with elderly stroke survivors and people with Parkinson’s disease. They help patients strengthen the muscles used to swallow and may suggest ways of communicating without the spoken word.
Degrees/certificates that prepare you for this career: Master’s degree in speech-language pathology, plus state licensure or registration.
Something to think about: In many cases, speech-language pathologists are working with adult patients whose health is declining. Unlike kids, who want to communicate, older adults may not be motivated to do the work necessary to get them back to 100 percent. Moreover, older patients may lack social interactions that could help them practice what they learn in a session.
Is This the Right Career for You?
Working with older people requires certain skills and personality traits. Before jumping in, make sure you not only have the knowledge but also the disposition to effectively help elderly people. If you have the following six traits, a career working with elder individuals could be a good fit:
In most cases, older people have a slower pace – they move slower, talk slower and may need a little more time to process some things, especially things they aren’t familiar with. That said, working with older people – whether in healthcare, finance or another industry – requires patience. You’ll likely have to slow things down and repeat yourself from time to time.
Each person is different: successful workers must adapt their approaches to find what motivates each individual they work with. Additionally, if you’re working in healthcare, things are fast-paced and workers must sometimes step in to cover outside of their normal shift times.
The best elder care providers are kind, thoughtful and loving. Staples says, “The type of individual who wants to work for hospice is usually truly unique, and something I haven’t found at any other job. The care, passion, kindness, and empathy, is completely fulfilling to witness.”
This goes hand in hand with respect and even patience. From caregivers to financial advisors, older people need people who will listen to them and their needs. On top of that, some may be lonely and want to just talk, so you’ll have to know when to just listen and when to politely steer a conversation back on topic to get things done.
Another trait that works best with some of the others outlined in this list. It isn’t always easy to connect with older people, especially those who are in pain, lonely or depressed. Working with the elderly will require empathy. This not only helps you overcome the challenges that come with the job, but it also helps you develop a good working relationship with your older client.
Older people grew up in a society that venerates elders. They’ll expect the people that work with them to treat them with respect. That may involve asking them questions instead of giving orders and doing things their way whenever possible.
Q&A with a Former Hospice Counselor & Bereavement Coordinator
Tyler D. Staples shares some of his experiences working with the elderly when he was a hospice counselor and bereavement coordinator. His answers below are meant to provide a closer look at just one type of career path within the aging industry.
What did a typical day look like for you?
Every morning began with a treatment team of sorts, including any current hospice patients (or family members) who were in relative crisis and in need of counselor support. I would prioritize those individuals and I would also help out with some basic patient care, particularly during my visits.
The bulk of my job was with the families who had lost someone on our hospice. I provided individual and family counseling as a free-of-charge service.
I also did group counseling with caregivers of individuals who were in assisted living, as a means to avoid “caregiver burnout.” This included spouses, who sometimes themselves had a fair bit of physical limitation. And finally, as a community service outreach project, I provided free counseling to elderly individuals who were in transition from home to assisted living. We had recognized that grief and depression were major factors in the switch from living in your own home to a facility.
Why did you pursue a career working with the elderly?
I chose hospice specifically because of my personal experience in hospice. My grandfather was on hospice, and the services were a true blessing, including those services provided to my family. No one comes out of school wanting to have a career in hospice (usually); generally, it takes a personal experience to make you want to do it. That was mine.
I chose to work with the elderly in general because of the stories. I love therapy as a whole because, essentially, you’re getting paid to listen to stories all day. Elder individuals tend to have the best stories. And really, as I’ve observed, the simple act of storytelling for a senior provides massive therapeutic benefit all on its own.
How did you get into the field?
I have always wanted to become a therapist (and at one point, a psychiatrist). One of my early fascinations with psychology came with the study of human development. One of the first things you learn is that, not only does development not stop at adulthood, it doesn’t slow down, either. This is especially true for late adulthood.
What parts of your job were most challenging?
You would think “death” would be the most challenging facet for something like hospice, but it wasn’t. The biggest challenge by far was the sadness that came with individuals realizing they would have to die without their family around. But even then, being allowed to be there for them when no one else would be, and seeing the comfort it brought — it does make up for some of it, but never all of it. That will always be a challenge.
How long were you a bereavement counselor? Why did you change roles?
I was a bereavement counselor for two years. I actually didn’t want to leave, but it seemed like a necessary move. I still miss the work. However, I really wanted to get back to hospital work (it was my first real psych job out of school, and I loved every minute of it), and hospice work required a lot of time in the car — up to an hour each way just to get to work, plus driving to various nursing homes and clients’ homes all day. I racked up 44,000 miles on my car in just the two years I was working there!
AARPFormally known as the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP is a nonprofit advocacy group that serves people 50 and older. Thanks to its massive membership, AARP does everything from lobbying for better healthcare policies to negotiating discounts for its members. Visit the policy section on its website for expert insight into seniors’ needs.
Association for Gerontology in Higher Education: Learn About Careers in AgingAGHE’s quick guide can expand one’s thinking about the types of careers available. It also gives an overview of the different gerontology degrees, starting with associate programs, and what one is likely to encounter every step of the way.
Better Health While Aging PodcastMeant for the elderly and their caregivers, this biweekly podcast from a geriatrics specialist delves into health management and issues like dealing with senior parents. Most episodes include an interview with a caregiving expert.
The Caregivers’ Living RoomA personal blog from a caregiver, The Caregivers’ Living Room gives an unadulterated and up-close look at the emotional toll of working with older populations.
Gerontological Society of America (GSA)GSA promotes gerontological research and education in the field of aging. Students are eligible for discounted membership fees. Benefits include access to multiple scholarly journals, a mentor service, career services and networking.
Minding Our EldersA blog from renowned caregiving consultant Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders provides resources and advice to caregivers. Bursack often responds to readers’ questions about bereavement, nutrition, Alzheimer’s and other topics.
National Institute on AgingPart of the National Institutes of Health, the NIA publishes health research for older Americans. The research is summarized into easy-to-read articles. It’s also a great place to find the latest clinical trials.