UW Certificate Program Leads to Success Working with Older Adults

senior students

"The certificate was life changing," said LeighBeth Merrick, who believes that the University of Washington's Professional and Continuing Education (PCE) Certificate Program in Gerontology got her to where she is today.

5/6/14. Photo by Daniel Berman/www.bermanphotos.com

LeighBeth Merrick's gerontology certificate led to a new career.

With a background in business marketing from the UW, LeighBeth worked five years in photo/catalog/print production for large retail companies and developing packaging for technology products. She thought this was what she wanted to do. But as an only child, she realized she would someday be caring not only for her parents but also for many aunts and uncles.

Wanting to prepare herself, LeighBeth started to research the roles of caregivers. While doing so, she realized she could also develop working with older adults as a career for the future. She began by volunteering a as a FullLife Elder Friend to an 82-year-old woman in a care facility who had no family left. Then she applied to the PCE certificate in 2012.

In 2013, during a Gerontology Certificate Networking session on "aging in place," LeighBeth met panelist Jay Wolford, CEO of SHAG, the largest provider of senior housing in Western Washington that serves low- to moderate-income older people. Currently, SHAG has 28 communities with 5,500 residents—and they are building a new project every year for the next five years. LeighBeth asked to do her capstone assignment interview with SHAG and, in doing so, realized that she wanted to commit to underserved older adults with little to no resources or family to support them.

LeighBeth left her marketing job in July. By August, she was employed as SHAG's community life coordination, managing wellness programs for SHAG, including Life Enrichment (mind, body, spirit) and Community Building (social aspects and connection to community). LeighBeth reflected that "the certificate program is what you want to make out of it," since it is filled with lectures, readings, access to community and academic experts, and networking with a great cohort of peers. The certificate is an introduction to the complexities of aging and to different career possibilities, both for those new to the field and those who are already working with older adults and want to advance their knowledge and skills.

For LeighBeth, the PCE certificate launched a successful career change even though she started with almost no experience working with older adults. By taking that first step to volunteer to make sure it was what she wanted and then learning about different community agencies through the program, she was able to move into a job she loves where she serves this growing population.

Strengthening her understanding of aging

Wendy Pender has always been interested in healthy aging. Her mother turns 100 this year and, as the youngest of seven siblings, Wendy has watched her family age together. She sees her mom as an example of people who are living longer and doing it well.


Wendy Pender's gerontology certificate led to enhanced library programming for older adults.

A librarian for over 20 years, Wendy has a BA in Humanities from the University of Minnesota and a Master in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh. After joining the staff at King County Library System (KCLS) nine years ago, she realized that approximately 28 percent of library patrons are over age 50. Wendy quickly saw that libraries need direct programming to serve this population and that it was an opportune time to create change.

Wendy registered for the PCE Certificate in Gerontology to strengthen her understanding of aging from a biological, psychological, cultural, and political perspective and, after graduating in 2011, became the committee chair for KCLS's Transforming Life after 50. Drawing upon data to show changing demographics in King County, the committee gained visibility for aging issues by cultivating an internal cohort and gaining administrative buy-in for senior programming.

Wendy worked to make connections between the library system and senior service organizations in the county. As the Older Adults Project Specialist, she is reaching out to other library systems to encourage them to address aging issues. And she was recently invited to speak at the National Public Library Association Conference in Denver to present "This Ain't Your Grandma's Library—Or Is It? Serving Older Adults in a Changing World."  

Wendy benefitted from the Gerontology Certificate's breadth of topics on aging, family and community. Through its group projects and guest lectures, she learned from experts in the aging field. Valuing the importance of continuing education, Wendy believes that "learning something new is important for everyone—it's part of keeping your brain healthy—and the program was a perfect way to do it and serve the community."

Wendy is building programs at KCLS around "Legacy, Memoir Writing, Reflection & Life Review" and creating the equivalent of "Meet-Ups" to build community and help patrons focus on staying healthy. She suggests that "every industry will need to adapt" and a first step can be setting a foundation—like that provided by the UW PCE's Gerontology Certificate—so people can envision how to bring healthy aging into all aspects of life.

For more information about Wendy's work at King County Library System, see "Mind Matters at King County Libraries" in this issue.

Contributor Kate Lorenzen, assistant director for academic programs at UW Professional and Continuing Education (PCE), asks "What's next in your career?" PCE offers over 150 certificates including Gerontology, Care Management and Guardianship and is looking to increase their aging studies programs to meet the growing need in the community