My professional interest and passion for working with older adults happened by accident. At the end of my sophomore of high school, I began hunting for a part-time job in an attempt to start saving money for college. There were only a few options available in small town Wisconsin. I could clean the local veterinarian clinic, work as a cashier at one of the town’s two grocery stores, or I could wait tables. It took a summer’s worth of witnessing multiple gory animal surgeries, while cleaning cages, to realize that my dream of becoming a veterinarian was not going to become a reality.
I went back to the drawing board, and began a second job hunt. I had heard about the possibility of becoming a dietary aide for an organization in my town. At this time, nutrition was a big interest of mine, so I wandered into a building that I thought was the organization of interest to pick up my job application. As it turned out, the building was an assisted living community that happened to be looking to hire another resident assistant. I was warmly greeted by the nurse manager who later acted as my mentor for the remainder of my high school and college. Six years after I began working at this assisted living facility, I had a psychology bachelor’s degree, with a certificate in Gerontology. After much thought, I decided to apply to doctoral programs in counseling psychology, so I could further my clinical work and research with Geropsychology as my focus.
Rarely do students in counseling psychology training programs come across opportunities to work with older adults by accident. It may even be difficult to identify experiences that incorporate work with older adults. Since Counseling Psychology programs have traditionally been housed in colleges of education, we often encounter more convenient and visible opportunities to work with children and younger adults in educational and community settings. This is an issue of social justice. Our social work colleagues define social justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities” (NASW, n.d.). Older adults also need access to culturally-competent care by professionals that are appropriately trained in issues related to aging.
Given the shifting age demographic in favor of older adults, as well as the projected increase in psychological service provision to older adults, Counseling Psychology has an incentive to increase research and practice in Geropsychology. Moreover, according to Division 17, we have a social responsibility to “serve persons of all ages and cultural backgrounds in both individual and group contexts and provide consultation services to organizations that look to enhance their effectiveness or the well-being of their members” (APA Division 17, 2015). This description served as an invitation to unite my Counseling Psychology and Geropsychology identities in settings such as nursing homes and hospitals. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find such opportunities in programs that do not have an explicit emphasis on aging or Geropsychology track. Thankfully, if we do a little leg work, we foster opportunities to provide services to older adults in communities without pre-established practicum and research positions.
The following is a list of suggestions for counseling psychology students interested in working with older adults in research and practice, based upon my own experience:
- Network. Connect with advanced students or program alumni to discover opportunities they had to work with older adults, or gain exposure to issues related to aging. Contact your training director, program chair, or clinical coordinator who may be able to put you in touch with these individuals.
- Work closely with your clinical coordinator to establish possible training sites in your community or surrounding area that service older adults. No current practica in place? Check out this article, entitled, How to Find Practicums Outside of Your Program’s Current Affiliations, for tips for creating your own practicum.
- Supervisors may ask you to identify your clinical interests or population of interest. In community agencies or hospital settings, request to work with older adults who may present for therapy or other psychological services.
- Join national organizations such as our Division 17 OASIG, Division 20, Division 12/II, and Psychologists in Long Term Care (PLTC) to connect with other students who share an interest in working with older adults and to find mentors who can assist you in career development opportunities. Check out GeroCentral for more information.
- Volunteer at local nursing homes, hospice organizations, or assisted living facilities to supplement your practicum experiences.
- Consider finding a position as an elder assistant/resident assistant/ nurse aide. Added perk: this is a paid position, and provides significant opportunities to interact with other disciplines.
- Look for online or community trainings that focus on issues specific to the older adult population (may be free or have student discount enrollment fee)
Finally, it’s important to realize that work with older adults is unique and quite different from work with clients in more traditional counseling psychology settings, such as college counseling centers. Keeping open lines of communication with faculty in your training program is essential to pursuing your interest in working with older adults and getting your needs met. Opportunities to work with older adults during graduate training may not happen without our initiative. By thinking outside of the box, we can fulfill Division 17’s mission for social justice by creating our own opportunities to provide services for older adults.
American Psychological Association, Division 17. (2015). What is counseling psychology?Retrieved from http://www.div17.org/about-cp/what-is-counseling-psychology/
National Association of Social Workers. (n.d). Social Justice. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/pressroom/features/issue/peace.asp.
About the Author:
Shannon Patterson, M.Ed., is the Division 17 Older Adult Special Interest Group Student Social Justice Award Winner for 2016. She is a pre-doctoral psychology intern at the Phoenix VA Health Care System where she provides mental health services to older adults in primary care. Her research focuses on the intersection of ageism and health status in individual psychotherapy and psychology trainees’ experiences on interprofessional health care teams. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.