Innovative Care for Aging Populations

Spring 2024
A photograph of a doctor wearing a white lab coat holding a tablet, showing it to an older adult patient.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 6 people globally will be aged 60 or older by 2030, and the number of people aged 80 or older will triple between 2020 and 2050. In Arizona, 1.5 million residents are over the age of 60, and nearly 1 in 4 are 65 or older. As these demographic changes occur, new challenges must be addressed to meet the needs of the aging population.

A new master’s program developed by UArizona Health Sciences International and offered through the UArizona Graduate College and Arizona Online aims to develop a workforce to address the challenges created by demographic shifts in Arizona and around the world. Designed for students and professionals, the program will prepare an emerging generation of health care and other professionals to meet the needs of an increasingly aging population.

Learning to Care for Aging Populations

It was a stunning lesson in aging. But a useful one. At age 10, Jeannie Lee noticed the signs of dementia in her grandmother, Jong-Min Noh. Jong-Min did not recognize her own daughter. Or, later, her son.

“I was shocked,” Lee recalls. “I knew Alzheimer’s/ dementia was setting in for her.”

They all lived together in their South Korean city, and Lee pitched in to help manage her grandmother’s care. Lee bought a notebook, learned how to measure blood pressure, and created neat rows and columns to keep track of Jong-Min’s daily levels along with notes on medicines for several illnesses.

That was Lee’s first step on the road to innovation.

Today Lee, associate dean at the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy and an associate professor of pharmacy, will require her students to follow suit in a new Master’s of Science Program called Innovations in Aging.

Lee obtained a doctorate in pharmacy with a residency at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C. When she entered health care studies, her experience with her grandmother motivated her to work with older adults. “I wanted to assist in any way that I could,” she says, “to protect their memory, their dignity.”

Lee has helped create the new Master of Science curriculum to teach younger generations to be creative in their own ways. A key driver of the program has been Linda Phillips, a registered nurse, who is chair of the interdisciplinary program and a professor emerita in the College of Medicine.

Several years ago, Phillips observed that there was a burgeoning group of older people who were finishing careers from engineering to business to medicine to architecture and ready to study in a new field. “It was a unique opportunity for younger people to study with older students — in the encore part of their lives, looking for a second career. It was a wonderful opportunity for the university, too,” Phillips says.

And these older students, she says, can create change in “a world not designed to be age friendly.”

“Educating younger individuals about aging of all persons and meeting the challenges and opportunities of aging moves us one step closer to improving health and well-being for all,” Phillips says.

New applicants to the program are coming from across the spectrum of UArizona studies, including pharmacy, nursing, law and nutrition. A few of them come from the Care, Health and Society Program in sociology, Phillips says.

The online Innovations in Aging program is aimed at changing the world of midcareer professionals and students by adding skills in aging to their repertoires.

Increasing diversity in the workforce also is an essential goal of the program, Phillips says, pointing to evidence that Native American, African American and Latino people are severely underrepresented in aging-related fields. Many of these diverse aging populations are growing faster than non-Hispanic white populations.

The master’s in aging is open to students with at least a bachelor’s degree or graduate status and is offered globally through Arizona Online. Classes were designed with guidance from the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education.

Lee says she will be telling students about her own first experiences with aging, helping her grandmother, Jong-Min.

“We want them all to be mindful of aging populations,” Lee says, “so they can innovate within their own professions. And we will empower them."

Appropriate labels are a key part of the coursework.

Says Phillips, “For the last 15 years, ‘elder’ was a nice word. But now in our culture we are asked not to use ‘elder’ or ‘senior.’ They have negative connotations, like ‘aging’ and ‘dying.’

“Aging does not equal dying. Aging is just a developmental stage. There’s nothing wrong with aging, but it should not imply the bitter end.”

Today, Phillips says, the preferred term is “older adults.”

“I was 78 at my last birthday,” she says. “And there’s still fun to be had.

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