The Rutgers School of Public Health recently launched the Population Aging Concentration within the Department of Health Behavior, Society and Policy.
The program is the only one of its kind in New Jersey and was created in order to fully address the needs of the aging population and their complex intersectional identities, said Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.
It will help prepare students to design and execute creative public health, societal, policy and community-based interventions, said Paul Duberstein, professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior, Society and Policy at the Rutgers School of Public Health.
He said older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population and many other countries around the world. Therefore, it is important that there are programs that cater to their specific needs.
“For the first time in history, there will be more older adults than young children. Some have called this the silver tsunami,” Duberstein said. “We must prepare for the silver tsunami.”
The biggest challenge that older adults deal with is ageism, which is largely invisible, he said.
Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination of people on the basis of age, and it can have serious negative effects on both the mental and physical health of older individuals, according to the World Health Organization.
Duberstein said another challenge faced by older adults is the lack of infrastructure available to handle the housing, social, recreational and healthcare needs of their growing population.
“By 2035 there will be proportionately more older adults in the population than children. A dire shortage of available family caregivers is expected,” he said. “Most people know that our nation has a crumbling transportation infrastructure, but there is less awareness of how unprepared we are logistically for the silver tsunami.”
The third challenge for older adults is that they are more likely to experience loneliness than younger individuals and also have large rates of suicide, Duberstein said.
“Biological aging inexorably brings disease and infirmity, but it does not inevitably lead to social disconnectedness and existential malaise,” he said. “Loneliness and suicide in older adults are cultural problems. We need to fix those problems.”
Duberstein said there are currently many gaps in the national response to the needs of the aging population in areas such as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, prescription medication, end-of-life care and the Black, Latinx, women and LGBTQ+ communities.
For instance, he said there have been disproportionately more COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes compared to other settings, and this could have been avoided if more resources and effort were devoted to the issue.
Additionally, Duberstein said many older adults are on too many medications, which could cause significant harm and lead to death. Older adults are also often underrepresented in Food and Drug Administration trials, creating a gap in scientific knowledge that could be life-threatening, he said.
The Population Aging Concentration program will train students to develop solutions to these often unrecognized problems that currently exist, Duberstein said. They will learn about the nursing home industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the delivery of end-of-life care all while keeping intersectionality in mind.
He said in most clinical training programs the unique needs of the aging population are either relatively studied or ignored altogether.
“Clinical training programs are disease-based, but there is also a need for clinicians and public health professionals to understand that humans are inherently resilient,” Duberstein said. “Cultural and social innovations can mitigate the effects of biological aging and allow people and communities to thrive and flourish.”
Students interested in the program can visit the School of Public Health’s website to get more information.