Like most developing countries, India has a large proportion of elderly people. This is mainly because of the decline in child mortality rates and increased life expectancy due to advancements in medical sciences. India currently has an aged population that comprises nearly 75 million of the total population and that is expected to touch nearly150 million by 2025.

Gerontology is the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging along with problems that elderly individuals might encounter. It is distinct from geriatrics, which is a branch of medicine that specialises in the treatment of diseases in older adults. Gerontologists include researchers and practitioners in the fields of biology, nursing, medicine, criminology, dentistry, social work, physical and occupational therapy, psychology, psychiatry, sociology, economics, political science, architecture, geography, pharmacy, public health, housing, and anthropology.

The main specialisations in the field are biogerontology and social gerontology. The first is mainly concerned with the research of biological processes, effects of ageing and the reasons behind reduced efficiency of vital organs. Whereas, the second deals with the social aspects of ageing mainly changing relationships with family, friends and colleagues and their roles within organisations. Their work is to directly deal with older adults in community centres, residential homes and through programmes as counsellors.

Although institutes offering degree courses in gerontology are less in India compared to the numbers abroad, many have started offering post graduate diploma and certificate courses in the field. Some of the traditional degree courses such as social work, psychology, sociology and other health-related fields may have gerontology as a subject for specialisation. Candidates from any discipline can apply for gerontology courses but the study of subjects like biology, sociology, psychology and therapy best prepares students to work in gerontology. Institutes offering courses in the field are the Institute of Home Economics, National Institute of Social Defence, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Counselling and Calcutta Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology. Students interested in this field should enjoy working with older people and have effective oral as well as written communication skills. Gerontologists can start off by volunteering in community service agencies, which helps to gain experience as well as valuable contacts helpful for employment.

Seema Puri, associate professor and coordinator of innovative programme in health and social gerontology, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi, elaborates on gerontology as an emerging career option. Excerpts:

As an expert actively working in the field don’t you think gerontology is a little known area to Indians?

Yes, but awareness is growing. The term “gerontology” may seem unfamiliar to many but ageing and problems of the elderly are now an emerging concern.

Ageing is a global issue now. What kind of changes will ageing bring to individuals, families and society as a whole?

Ageing in India has a few salient characteristics. They are:

Feminisation of ageing – elderly females outnumbers elderly men since they live longer. Because women generally marry men who are older, their period of widowhood is greater. Not all women are financially independent and they have to depend on their children.

With more youngsters moving abroad, the aged are left alone and therefore, need someone to care for them.

With more working women and break down of the joint family system, well-being of the elderly is becoming a big problem and more so in urban areas. With smaller housing facilities and financial constraints, most children are unable to look after their parents.

In the absence of social support schemes, the family is the primary caregiver of the elderly.

While joint families are decreasing, sending the aged to an old age home is still considered a taboo and an indication that the elderly are unwanted in the family. Hence, in future families will need support for care giving to the elderly. The solution to the problems could be trained caregivers. Models like respite care, day care, dementia care among others would be needed.

What are the specialties of gerontology as a career?

Gerontology deals with “non-medical care” of the elderly. Hence areas of specialisation could be health, which is dealing with health care needs, prevention of chronic diseases, overseeing diet and lifestyle. Second, dealing with issues like social support, widowhood and depression constitutes the socio-psychological aspect. And resource management entails designing a barrier-free environment, functional aids, running an old age home and the works.

How is the nature of work?

There are several levels of work, namely care giving at home, managers to run programmes, entrepreneurs, NGO staff, teachers, counsellors among others.

What are the requirements to take gerontology as a career?

For various levels there are different requirements. Care giving requires a school pass-out. For others, graduation or post graduation courses in gerontology or allied fields like nursing, social work or psychology is required.

What are the employment opportunities for a gerontologist?

It is an emerging field so employment opportunities are also increasing every year. Most of our students are employed with NGOs or hospitals working in this area. Besides, many corporate houses have entered this arena and are employing the students who have pursued gerontology. Students with a post graduate degree in a relevant subject can be easily employed.

How good is the remunerations in this sector?

Starting salary depends on qualification and experience. A physiotherapist trained in gerontology will get more. The starting salary is around Rs15,000-20,000. For entrepreneurs, the remuneration is, of course, more.

What courses should one study to pursue gerontology?

It helps if one has an allied degree in human development, physiotherapy, nursing, social work, psychology, et al.

What is the duration of the postgraduate diploma course? Is it a full-time or part time course?

It is a one-year full-time post graduate programme in health and social gerontology. Other institutes offer diploma courses as well.

What is the fees structure like? Are there scholarships available for students?

As per Delhi University norms, the annual fees for the course are around Rs 15,000.

Are students sent for exchange programmes?

We have a memorandum of understanding with the University of Osnabruck, Germany and joint research has been conducted in this area.

What are the problems emerging gerontologists face?

Absence of proper training and lack of awareness as a discipline are the two major problems.

What do you have to say about aging and how it is perceived in India?

India has a large elderly population. Thus the problems of the elderly such as medical needs and social support will get magnified in the years to come. In the absence of social support schemes, the family is the primary caregiver. The government should design interventions to support the family in taking care of the elderly. We should not consider the ageing population as a burden. In fact, most of them may be able to contribute significantly in society.