Madonna University program offers students chance to rethink aging

Aging Studies program corrects misconceptions about elder care, gives students real-world experience

Gabi Hejka, an intern in the Madonna University Aging Studies program, sits and chats with Gewerl Summer Sept. 20. As part of her internship, Hejka visits senior housing residents and helps with paperwork, low-income housing eligibility and other matters.

Gabi Hejka, an intern in the Madonna University Aging Studies program, sits and chats with Gewerl Summer Sept. 20. As part of her internship, Hejka visits senior housing residents and helps with paperwork, low-income housing eligibility and other matters.

Livonia — With the “Baby Boomer” generation entering into retirement, one out of five people in Michigan are 60 years or older.

It’s no surprise that long-term care is becoming a critical job sector in the country, with more and more people needed to care for the nation’s elderly.

But while many understand the need for more senior care workers, misconceptions and misinformation about America’s older citizens still exist, and that’s what Madonna University’s Aging Studies program hopes to combat, training the next generation of senior-care providers and administrators.

“We have a lot of trouble with stereotypes with aging,” said professor Sue Sweeney, MPH, MA, program director of the Department of Aging Studies at Madonna University. “There are stereotypes of what seniors can do, depicting how limited they are. A large portion of seniors are still volunteering, working, caring for kids. I worked with retirees, and so many of them complain there isn’t more variety of models for what they can do next.”

Hoping to correct this, Sweeney and assistant professor Denise Brothers, Ph.D., help train students to think critically in their work with seniors, challenging them to consider the many different aspects of the later part of life.

“A lot of what we do is applicable with work in senior living, nursing homes, work in the community, with municipalities with senior centers and work in home care,” Sweeney said. “At the bachelor’s level, we prepare them to be managers who want to have an impact in care and policy.”

The Aging Studies Department has existed at Madonna for 42 years; previously, it was called “gerontology” before it was changed to distinguish the program from other gerontology programs.

“Students learn marketable skills, learn project management, education and planning,” Sweeney said. “They have to go out, complete nine visits and see what a nursing home is like, what a senior center looks like. We want them to learn outside the classroom, not just from books.”

The Aging Studies program tends to attract more non-traditional students, particularly older students with experience caring for family members or who’ve worked or volunteered in a nursing home.

But the program goes beyond caring for older adults who are sick or frail, training students to assist in areas such as retirement, legal protections and public advocacy for senior’s rights.

“In social classes we start with ageism myths and challenges,” Brothers said. “In intro, we overview all the areas of the Aging Studies department, do research in demography, adult development and retirement. Then we go into policy, legal and management courses.”

An integral part of the program is the internships students complete with Area Agencies on Aging, senior homes and retirement communities, where students apply the concepts to real-life situations.

Junior Gabi Hejka is an intern with Thome Rivertown Senior Apartments at Rivertown Assisted Living in Detroit, assisting administrator Julia Szuper, a fellow Madonna Aging Studies graduate.

“Once I decided to get into the field, I jumped right in and got a job as a caregiver in my first semester,” Hejka said. “At my internship, I learn the standards and activities required; my field is long-term care administration, so I need to learn laws and rules that go along with senior care. Julia Szuper had Professor Sweeney as well, so we’re a perfect match. I took a class in elder law, and I feel in love with working on the administrative side of helping seniors.”

Hejka said every day is different at her internship, but some of her duties include helping seniors file paperwork with the Social Security Administration and Detroit Housing Commission and assisting those who need low-income housing assistance.

“Rivertown Assisted Living has been here for three years,” Hejka said. “I give tours to potential residents, file applications, fax them to DHC. We have three different companies that work out of this location, so a lot goes into managing it all.”

Hejka also spends time roaming the halls, checking in on residents and making sure they have all they need.

“There are two really big things I’ve learned through the internship and courses,” Hejka said. “First is the psychological aging process. I learned older adults don’t come back to being a child, so we shouldn’t baby them. They still deserve respect, and they’re still part of society. Second, I really want to get involved with advocating for older adults, as they still have rights in the community.”

As senior care evolves to cater to more active seniors, the core principles of senior care and aging studies remain, according to Sweeney.

“We shouldn’t make plans for others,” Sweeney said. “We should be assisting them, giving them autonomy and independence. We ask students to study the effects of aging on their own bodies, telling them the decisions they make now affect you when you age.

“But on the other hand, you can improve your health at any time; it’s never too late. We all engage in denial about aging, and the course we teach here hammers that home.”