Thursday, April 24, 2008

Professor anticipates greater need for field in near future

By Courtney Westlake

What most people usually don't want to talk about for five minutes, Dr. Carolyn Peck has been studying and teaching most of her adult life.

The topics of death and dying don't overwhelm or dishearten her so much as interest her.

"The study of death and dying and working in that arena is something that has come naturally to me," Peck said. "One of my work experiences in Oklahoma was in a hospice as the bereavement coordinator and volunteer coordinator. I've also had the good fortune of caring for family members at the end of their lives. Because of those experiences, it's something that became part of my life, and it's an interest I continue to have professionally."

Peck, who came to UIS in 2002, is a faculty member in the human services department, teaching in the concentration of gerontology. Previously, she worked in the field of gerontology for more than 20 years in public and private sectors, she said.

"I've had a real rich diversity of experiences in a variety of arenas," Peck said. "My first job was as the manager of low-income housing for the elderly. I really stumbled into the field of gerontology; I had no idea it was the beginning of a lifetime career for me."

Within the gerontology concentration, one of four different concentrations in human services, Peck teaches four aging-related classes: Perspectives on Aging, Psychology of Aging, Aging and Human Services and Sociology of Death, Dying and Bereavement.

"In my death and dying class, I see one of most dramtic transformations following enrollment in the class," she said. "Initially there is some anxiety, and usually by the end of the semester, many of them are empowered, and, I hope, benefit both personally and professionally as a result. I hope in all my classes students are changed."

Enrollment in the gerontology concentration at UIS has remained constant, Peck said, although she belives there will be a significant increase in the near future.

"I anticipate a fairly dramatic increase because of the number of older adults who are going to be needing services over next 10 to 15 years," she said. "We have not seen that yet, but we anticipate enrollment to increase substantially over the next five to 10 years in order to meet the demands of the baby boomers that are just starting to turn 60."

The Baby Boomers are the group of people born between 1946 and 1964. They are different from today's elderly in variety of ways, including individuals who are living longer, have a higher-income due to higher levels of education and individuals who have chosen to remain single all their lives, Peck said.

"There will be some challenges when we look at the group of people who have never married and have remained single all of their lives. When we look at the individuals in today's elderly and who is caring for them, it's their adult children," Peck said. "The question being asked is who will care for the future elderly who are single in their later year; if they don't have children and never married, that's going to be a critical question."

To help faculty, staff and students begin preparing for their aging family members, Peck and the UIS Counseling Center have been offering workshops on the subject.

"One of the realities of today, and our campus is no different, is a truly epidemic number of middle-age people caring for their elderly parents," Peck said. "We felt the need to have some specialized types of education classes as well as support groups for people on our campus who are caring for aging family members. They have been well attended, and we have every reason to believe will continue."

There is no doubt, Peck said, that there will be a significant influx of older adults over the next 20 years.

"I see lot of jobs opening in the field of gerontology and associated fields," she said. "The number of older adults will create demands for service at a variety of different levels, which of course means a demand for positions and individuals who have a special training in the field of gerontology."