In the Public Interest
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the APA Committee on Aging (CONA) and the Office on Aging, the need for geropsychological research and practice has never been greater. Nor has the need for all psychologists to be informed by the burgeoning psychological literature in adult development and aging. Over the next 40 years, the number of people age
65 and older is expected to double, and the number of people age 85 and older is expected to triple.
Over the past decade, CONA and the Office on Aging have made great progress in promoting awareness of aging issues within psychology and the contributions that geropsychology can make to society as it strives to enhance the well-being of our older citizens. A few of its accomplishments include:
The "Priming the Geropsychology Pipeline" Project, which exposes students to aging issues by providing new educational resources and reaching out to college and high school psychology instructors.
The upcoming continuing education preconvention workshop "What Psychologists Should Know about Working with Older Adults," which targets those who desire to expand their practices into geropsychology.
The American Bar Association/APA "Assessment of Capacity in Older Adults Project," which applies the science of capacity assessment to legal and judicial decision-making.
Advocacy surrounding the 2005 White House Conference on Aging, which has resulted in the inclusion of mental health in its top 10 policy resolutions.
Although substantial progress has been made, significant challenges remain. The most significant challenge is battling ageism. As with other targets of discrimination and stereotyping, older adults are often viewed as a homogeneous group that has a variety of negative characteristics.
Despite what the psychological literature tells us about the experience of aging, such as the variability of biological decline, stability of personality and decline in negative emotions, older adults are often viewed collectively as "the elderly"--lonely, sick, dependent, rigid. Through this prism of ageism, the challenges facing geropsychology include:
Limited education and training opportunities. Many students are not exposed to the rich diversity of aging. Introductory psychology textbooks often limit the discussion of aging to dementia, death and dying. Although 70 percent of practicing psychologists indicate they conduct some clinical work with older adults, fewer than 30 percent report having had any graduate coursework in geropsychology.
A shortage of practitioners and researchers. A limited view of aging often results in the misconception that geropsychology is depressing and offers little variety. To the contrary, opportunities for varied work abound in geropsychology and in niche areas such as I/O psychology, health psychology, neuropsychology and experimental psychology.
A service shortfall. Two-thirds of older adults with a mental health disorder do not receive services. Low expectations among health providers regarding psychological growth and the effectiveness of interventions, and the inability to distinguish between normal and pathological aging, translate into a lack of appropriate care.
A perceived burden. The stereotypical view of older adults as a societal burden rather than an asset discounts the roles of older adults as productive workers and mentors, in their families as dedicated caregivers, and in their communities as volunteers.
A decade ago, the "Proposal for a Committee on Aging" stated, "The growing need for expertise, services, research, policy guidance and training confronts the psychological community, whether we are ready for it or not." Through the work of CONA, the Office on Aging and its director, Deborah DiGilio, APA has moved to a greater state of readiness from a decade ago, but there is much more to accomplish. Future accomplishments require the concerted efforts of all psychologists. We must embrace what our own research tells us about growing old, not the anti-aging perspective that is pervasive in American society. I hope you will join us in these efforts.