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Mercedes Bern-Klug
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MERCEDES BERN-KLUG University of Iowa professor’s work helps students understand that later stages of life should be appreciated, not feared.

Getting old is often framed negatively—as if each birthday is a step closer to the inevitable—but a University of Iowa professor says aging doesn’t have to be so bad.

At the helm of the UI Aging Studies Program, Mercedes Bern-Klug is helping students from a variety of fields appreciate the later stages of life. She believes this knowledge will benefit them in their careers and in their own lives as they themselves age.

“People in their twenties tend to fear getting old, but most older people don’t want to go back,” she says. “Actually, studies have shown that people are typically happier at age 65 than they were at age 25. We need to rethink and value this stage of life, as individuals and as a society.”

Whether students choose jobs in health care, politics, business, or any other field, they’re bound to interact with older adults. The number of Iowans 65 or older is expected to rise from 450,000 in 2008 to more than 663,000 by 2030, and similar trends exist at the national and global levels. Now more than ever before more people are surviving long enough to reach old age.

At The University of Iowa, more than 750 students from a variety of majors are taking classes affiliated with the Aging Studies Program. Graduate and undergraduate students can earn a certificate in aging studies, administered through the School of Social Work in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Undergraduates can earn a minor.

“Aging will affect virtually every profession,” says Bern-Klug, assistant professor of social work. “We need students from all fields who respect the wisdom and perspective that can come with age, and who will appreciate and build on the strengths of someone who has lived seven to ten decades.”

One important lesson about aging, Bern-Klug says, is that all older adults shouldn’t be lumped into the same category. People used to think of “old age” as one stage of life, but that blanket category doesn’t work well when considering capacities, interests, or needs of older adults.

She and other gerontologists speak in terms of “third” and “fourth” ages. For example, someone in the 60-to-75-age range may be healthy, peaking professionally, or transitioning out of the workforce and traveling. A person 20 years older could be coping with frailty and loneliness.

“We wouldn’t put 4-year-olds and 44-year-olds in the same group, and it doesn’t make sense to put people 65 to 105 in the same group either,” Bern-Klug says.

To show the breadth and depth of older adults’ lives, she launched Aging 360, a photography competition for UI students. The contest runs through the end of February, and entries will be displayed at Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop in North Hall.

She also aims to equip students with aging skills that will come in handy later in their own lives.

“We encourage students to prepare for an enjoyable older adulthood by developing hobbies, interests, and social networks throughout life,” Bern-Klug says. “Those interests and relationships will help them navigate life’s transitions as they age.”

In addition to her work with students, Bern-Klug is conducting research to help nursing home social workers do their jobs more effectively. With funding from the John A. Hartford Foundation, she conducted the first national survey of nursing home social workers. More than 1,000 responded, providing information on their credentials and salaries, the challenges and rewards of their jobs, and how they step in to help residents thrive.

She found that only half of the directors of social work in nursing homes have a degree in social work, and 20 percent have not earned a college degree. Qualifications of nursing home social workers vary partly because of low federal standards and inconsistent state laws.

Mindful of the variations in training, she’s developing intervention techniques appropriate for all levels of experience. [See Resources for Nursing Home Social Workers.]

“Social workers monitor the emotional well-being of residents and assist in medical decision-making, which can be confusing and stressful for residents and families,” she says. “A resident’s wishes or expectations don’t always match what the family has in mind. The techniques we’re developing will help social workers discuss options and facilitate difficult conversations.”

Bern-Klug’s interest in the topic was sparked in part by personal experience. She married an only child whose mother was in her seventies. Her mother-in-law lived in several nursing homes.

“Many of the employees we met were silent heroes. I witnessed the patience, sense of humor, and skill required to do the job well,” she says. “I also recognized that there was a lot more nursing homes could do from a social work perspective, and I hope my work can help.”

For more information, see the Aging Studies Program site.

story by Nicole Riehl; photo by Kirk Murray


February 15, 2010