The Gerontology Movement - Is It Passing Us By?

Article excerpt

The potential contributions of health, physical education, recreation and dance (HPERD) to quality of life and the field of aging are enormous. Although much attention has been directed to the study of aging within national HPERD associations, emphasis at the program level in higher education appears to be less than what is warranted by the needs within our own profession and within gerontology in general. In curriculum development and professional preparation opportunities, HPERD's involvement in gerontology lags behind that of other fields, such as sociology, psychology, biology, and nursing. Additionally, HPERD-related content is not being reflected within the overall field of gerontology to the degree justified by its documented importance to the aging process. Traditionally, the main focus of HPERD professional programs within higher education has been on children and youth, with a recent emphasis extending to young and middle-aged adults. Relatively little attention, though, has been directed to the study of society's fastest growing segment--older adults, a population for which we can play an especially significant role in contributing to overall quality of life.

Results of a recent survey indicate that practitioners in the field, regardless of the age groups with whom they work, strongly believe that there is a need for increased emphasis on gerontological education within HPERD degree programs (Peterson, 1988). Many practitioners working with older people report that they have had to rely primarily on self-study and on-the-job training for developing specific skills and knowledges needed for the position. Knowledge of the aging process and factors related to successful aging is important not only in working with older people, but in educating individuals of all ages, both in school and in nonschool community settings. In the schools, for example, appropriate lifespan/successful aging concepts, attitudes, habits, and intergenerational experiences should be part of the total health and physical education program from kindergarten through college. Accumulating evidence suggests that one's lifelong health and activity patterns play a major role in contributing to optimum physical, mental, and social function, and therefore, to quality of life throughout the lifespan. (For reviews see: Gorman & Posner, 1988; Shephard, 1990; Smith, DiFabio, & Gilligan, 1990; Spirduso, 1986; Spirduso & Eckert, 1989; Spirduso & MacRae, 1990, 1991).

In this article, a brief overview of the gerontology movement is provided and the following topics are addressed: HPERD's current level of involvement, HPERD's unique and important contributions to the field of gerontology, and strategies for expanding HPERD's emphasis on adult development and aging and for gaining greater prominence in the field of gerontology. Terms such as physical activity, fitness, health promotion, recreation, and leisure are broadly defined and used, sometimes interchangeably, to relate to the total field of HPERD.

Historical Perspective

Gerontology, the study of aging, has grown tremendously during the past 30 years, partly because of a marked increase in the population of older adults. For the first time in history, beginning in 1987, there are more Americans over 65 than under 25 years of age. In the early 1900s only 4 percent of the population, about 3 million people, were 65 or older. Currently there are 31 million (12.6% of the population) in this age group, more than a tenfold increase in absolute numbers. By the year 2030, it is estimated that the current number will more than double, resulting in approximately 65 million Americans over age 65--22 percent of the total population (Bureau of the Census, 1989; 1990; Lonergan, 1991).

The major impetus for the gerontology movement (i.e., the substantial increase in number of age-related social and educational programs) was the passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965. …