MONMOUTH -- Geriatric wellness has been an area of interest for Western Oregon University Psychology Professor Rob Winningham for almost a decade.

But his background with seniors in clinical settings didn't help when he was once tasked with finding a doctor to diagnose an elderly family member's cognitive impairment.

"I was surprised that there are very few geriatric physicians, psychiatrists and neuropsychologists who can do that in Oregon," Winningham said. "And if you can find one, it may take months for you to see them.

"This is a frustrating situation," he continued. "Knowing what type of dementia somebody has can guide more effective therapy."

Medical service availability for the elderly, in the state and in general, needs improvement, Winningham opined.

"I think a lot more (would-be physicians) are attracted to pediatrics than geriatrics," he said. "Preventive medicine is a wonderful way to improve the quality of life for older adults ... but I think there's a bias beyond that."

Winningham and others at WOU hope to help reverse that trend through a new gerontology degree it will offer starting this fall.

The program is the first and only undergraduate gerontology major at a university in Oregon, Winningham said. A dozen students have enrolled as majors and another 23 as geropsychology minors.

Coursework will include Alzheimer's and dementia management, palliative care, and aging and mental health study. The major is designed to give skills to individuals interested in fields ranging from occupational therapy to nursing care administration.

Students can also seek it as a post-bacclaureate degree to other health professional degrees.

"Every state has a need for training in gerontology," said Winningham, WOU's psychology division chairman. "There's a huge need for it in health care as there aren't enough doctors, nurses, and others working with older adults."

There were 40 million people in the United States over the age of 65 in 2010; that number will grow to 70 million by 2030, according to statistics from the U.S. Administration on Aging.

A nurse or a physical therapist with a gerontology background better understands age-related changes in cognition and physical capabilities, and "how depression, changes in social networks and in living environment affect medical outcomes," Winningham said.

"As much as 50 percent of how much geriatric patients improve with medical treatment is due to psychological and social variables," he said.

The university began investigating the gerontology major in early 2010 and went through a rigorous approval and accreditation process. It has hired new faculty members, including David A. Haber of Ball State University.

Haber has authored several renowned books on healthy aging and is on the advisory board for the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education.

Organizations such as the Oregon Alzheimer's Association and the Salem-based Northwest Rehabilitation Associates, Inc. wrote letters supporting WOU's gerontology program.

Mike Studer, president of Northwest Rehabilitation, said that there's been an "evolution in geriatrics" that require greater consideration of the psychological aspects of care and therapy.

"A major in gerontology would be excellent preparation for physical therapy school," Studer wrote, adding if it were "available to me, I would have chosen this route."

The Need is Great

* There are currently 7,029 certified geriatricians in the United States -- one geriatrician for every 2,699 Americans 75 or older. Due to the projected increase in the number of older Americans, this ratio is expected to drop to one geriatrician for every 5,549 older Americans in 2030, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

* Oregon has a senior population that is increasing at a rate of about 3.5 percent a year, compared to the national median of 2.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

* In 2008, the United States had 185,000 physical therapists and 63,000 PT assistants; by 2018, the country will need 242,000 physical therapists and 85,000 PT assistants.

* According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment in home health care services will have increased by 69.5 percent between 2004 and 2014; community care services for the elderly were expected to increase by 55 percent during that period.

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