Remember when people could easily, or at least safely, visit their loved ones and friends at home and in care facilities, without fear of exposing them to the coronavirus? Now imagine a scenario in which policies and protocols are in place to protect vulnerable populations living safely in the community and in long-term care facilities; the outcome would differ greatly from the current reality.

A new online graduate certificate program offered by the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology is envisioning a brighter future for older adults at the same time it’s providing tools for current and future leaders to serve this population through ethical, effective management. During the 12-credit certificate program, graduate students and professionals will learn how to develop, implement, and assess policies, and to lead teams that provide support services for older adults. 

The vulnerability of older adults in the COVID-19 pandemic is well established, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that eight of 10 COVID-19-related deaths in the United States are among people 65 years and older. Even grimmer is the scenario for nursing home residents, with more than 111,000 confirmed cases and 30,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

These statistics are an important reason that Pamela Teaster, director of the Center for Gerontology and a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, believes the urgency is greater than ever that leaders in the gerontology field be prepared.

The Graduate Certificate in Leadership for an Aging Society covers a range of topics related to serving in a variety of positions in the eldercare industry. Course subjects include the biological, psychological, and sociological impacts of aging; public policy; and ethical issues surrounding older adults living in the community or in care facilities. 

“The certificate program takes a fairly visionary approach because, frankly, we’re getting some of the best experts in the country to teach the courses,” said Teaster. “I wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk with this program. Therefore, the courses are being taught by older adults who are legends in the field.” 

Robert Blancato
Robert Blancato. Photo courtesy of Robert Blancato.

The inaugural offering — a course on public policy development at local, state, and national levels — will be taught by Robert Blancato, executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.

With more than 20 years of service in the congressional and executive branches of the federal government, Blancato is a past senior staff member of the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging, and he served as executive director of the 1995 White House Conference on Aging. He serves on both the National Board of AARP and the Advisory Panel on Outreach and Education of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. As president of Matz, Blancato and Associates, he also directs several national coalitions, including the Elder Justice Coalition and Defeat Malnutrition Today.

“It’s a unique time to teach a course like this because aging is front and center of so much public policy happening right now,” Blancato said. “I envision a dynamic set of online discussions and learning opportunities based on the history of public policy and aging as well as current reflections of how the world has turned on its head at this moment. The course will recognize that many policy decisions that were frameworks of the past may be altered going forward.” 

Blancato said students should come prepared to learn about policy and how it’s created on state, national, and international levels. The course will also empower students as advocates when working with policymakers. 

Two students in business attire sit a conference table, looking at a laptop
The Center for Gerontology has a long-standing history of working with graduate students. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech, 2018.

Teaster said the course, Public Policy for an Aging Society, is available to anyone with an interest in eldercare policy, not just certificate seekers. For those who are interested yet not ready to apply for the certificate program, the class credits are eligible to be carried over to the full program.

The certificate’s target audiences include graduate students enrolled in degree programs related to aging — such as human development, public administration, and public affairs — and mid-management professionals who work in public or private organizations that specialize in caring for older adults. 

“This idea all bubbled up before I came back to Virginia Tech,” Teaster said, referring to the gap between when she earned her doctoral degree in public administration and public affairs and a graduate certificate in gerontology from the university and when she returned to Blacksburg to assume directorship of the Center for Gerontology. “For years I would go to events and see people dealing with gerontology issues. There would be leaders who didn’t know much about the population they were trying to serve. They were making gargantuan decisions, with the best of intentions, but sometimes poorly.”

Then there were others, she said, who found themselves in caregiving situations and discovered they wanted to work in gerontology yet knew little about managing aging-population programs. This certificate program seeks to complete the expertise of both groups.

“This program should appeal to a range of professionals in the field, including nursing home administrators and those who work in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Justice, and departments of social services at local, state, and national levels,” she said. “By improving understanding at the leadership level, this certificate program should help the country protect its older adults — both now and in the future.” 

For those interested in applying for the certificate program or enrolling in Blancato’s class, visit the Graduate Certificate in Leadership for an Aging Society web page. 

Written by Leslie King

Two women sit, chatting in an office environment
In 2018, Pamela Teaster discussed graduate course options with Emily Hoyt, then a human development student. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.