How we age is becoming a growing curriculum

The middle Ages

Older students have firm grasp of the issues

Themiddle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

December 31, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Columnist

It was the week before Christmas, and Sharon Habighurst was nervous: Twenty years had passed since she had taken a final exam. Her head stuffed with facts about Medicare, she anxiously reviewed a binder full of notes. At the same time, the 49-year-old student was juggling a full-time job, the schedules of her two teenage children and holiday duties.

When she finally sat down to prove her mastery of "The Experience of Aging," she recognized the same blue exam booklets she used in the 1980s. The big difference was that her classmates were now 30 years younger than she.

"I don't think my brain processes as fast as it used to," she says. But you might also argue she has a greater appreciation of such exam essay topics as retirement planning.

Then there's her grasp of the physiological side of the course Aging 200: "I'm living the curriculum," she says with a smile.

Habighurst, a Catonsville resident, is among the first undergraduates at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to major in the management of aging services, a bachelor of arts degree program offered through the new Erickson School of Aging Studies. Created by a $5 million gift from retirement community developer John Erickson and a matching state grant, the school held its first undergraduate classes this past semester on the UMBC campus.

More than 100 students -- including 43 declared majors -- enrolled in two courses on the experience of aging and on global aging and social insurance. Some were UMBC freshmen or previously undeclared or double majors. Others, like Habighurst, were transfers from community colleges.

Habighurst, who works in facilities management at UMBC, sees the program as another opportunity to keep in step with her tradition-breaking generation.

Born in 1957 -- the apex birth year for baby boomers -- the Dundalk native earned her associate degree in accounting from community college, married and became a working mother. She helped raise two children while continuing a full-time career in finance for the state. Now single after a 20-year-marriage, with one child in college and another a high school junior, she is planning the next phase of her life.

The Erickson School offers a major that blends business and management, public policy and the study of human aging. The curriculum includes courses in finance, in government regulations and policies and in the social, psychological and physical aspects of aging. Graduates may work in such fields as community planning, senior housing, health care management and delivery, policy analysis, financial services, travel and leisure and social services.

The goal is to prepare versatile leaders for every aspect of the economy dedicated to improving life for older Americans, says Erickson School dean Kevin Eckert.

Statistics underscore the growing need. In three years, according to the Census Bureau, there will be 39 million Americans age 65 or older. By 2030, those numbers will grow to nearly 77 million -- roughly one out of every five Americans. The number of centenarians will soar from 60,000 to 600,000 by mid-century.

"I think we're going to see more businesses and companies we never thought of emerge to address the huge needs of this group," Eckert says. "There's going to be a lot of entrepreneurship, a lot more private sector involvement with the public sector to develop programs."

It's also apparent that the aging labor force will work longer than once anticipated.

"The retirement trend in the United States has totally changed," he says. "It wasn't until the mid-1980s that half of those who retired said they were doing so because they simply wanted to leave the work force. Then the trend reversed. People are getting the message that entitlement programs are in trouble. Mandatory retirement ages are a thing of the past. Defined contribution plans have their own set of problems."

And he notes that many baby boomers are not setting aside much for the future.

"Our national savings rate fell into negative territory in 2005," he says. "That wasn't a blip, it's been a downward trend in recent decades."

Habighurst is pursuing this new career partly because of her own concerns about how to finance old age.

"What interested me is the retirement," she says. "Being a baby boomer, knowing how difficult it is to afford everything now, I am wondering how do people who are retired do it?"

Her father, Norman Blazejak, 75, retired from General Motors and from the National Guard, now works full-time for Baltimore County public schools transportation. Her mother volunteers at Norwood Elementary School in Dundalk.

Next semester Habighurst will take "Overview of Aging Services," a course that considers issues created by the huge surge in older Americans while also looking at the historical development of federal policies and aging services.

"Another thing that made me want to learn about aging management is that my grandmother was in a nursing home and I don't want to ever end up there," she says.

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