As executive director of Fitness for Country Meadows Retirement Communities, Kim Eichinger spends her days helping seniors gain strength and fitness. When she isn’t working directly with residents, she is researching the latest tools and techniques to improve senior fitness, and sharing her expertise with senior living providers across the country.
Eichinger loves working with older adults so much that she recently completed her associate’s degree in Gerontology, thanks to assistance from Country Meadows. Gerontology is the study of aging and problems encountered by older persons.
To help co-workers learn more about the needs of the residents they assist, and enhance services they provide, Country Meadows and Ecumenical Retirement Community help with expenses involved in enrolling in an online gerontology program available through Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC). Gerontology is the study of aging and problems encountered by older persons.
The organizations also subsidize half the cost of courses and textbooks for co-workers approved for the program which offers flexibility to earn a certificate, diploma or associate’s degree.
Eichinger is the first co-worker to complete coursework and earn an associate’s degree. “No matter a co-worker’s level at Country Meadows, there is a course within the online offerings that will enrich his or her knowledge about trends in aging and support his or her career in the long-term care industry,” she says.
Eichinger’s gained knowledge comes in handy both at work and in her personal life. Walking through a home her in-laws planned to buy, Eichinger used skills she learned to note features that would allow the couple to age in a potential new home. Through coursework, she gained an eye for items and home features to improve life for aging seniors, such as ability to make modifications to a property to accommodate physical challenges that come with age.
Gerontology is a growing field as Baby Boomers move into the 70+ age category, increasing the demand for services and care. HACC previously offered a Gerontology diploma and certificate program. Michael Leader, president & CEO-Country Meadows and Ecumenical, who is committed to increasing expertise in senior care, worked with HACC leadership to expand the program to an online format with the addition of the associate’s degree.
“This is a program that can benefit everyone who works in the field of senior living,” says Leader. “In addition to enriching the lives of co-workers, the associate’s degree can open up opportunities in the profession up to and including becoming administrator of a personal care community.”
Eichinger has more than 30 years of experience working in senior fitness. She began taking gerontology classes to expand her knowledge of long-term care and the issues and concerns specific to seniors and their families. Skills she has learned help her provide better support for residents and their loved ones and collaborate more effectively with her team members from other departments. She also feels empowered to continuously improve services with the needs and expectations of the Baby Boomer generation in mind.
“The courses addressed everything from breaking stereotypes to elder law and different concepts of long term care. It gave me a much broader view of aging than what we see every day,” says Eichinger. “If we want to change the future of aging for generations to come, we need to have this knowledge and insight.”
One of the most intriguing classes for Eichinger was “Careers in Gerontology,” which explored the types of businesses that require an understanding of the aging process. Interacting online with classmates of all ages and backgrounds including students in nursing, social work and caregivers, provided her with new perspectives.
“I’ve grown in many ways. I have a much better understanding of the aging process, losses and the types of changes seniors and their families are going through, but the experience was also valuable in ways that aren’t specific to gerontology,” says Eichinger. “Taking the courses provided an opportunity to challenge my brain and grow, learn new material and venture into topics I might not have explored otherwise. Doing an online course certainly improved my writing and communication skills as well as time management.”
While taking courses online provides flexibility, completing the work is demanding. As a full-time co-worker, Eichinger says she learned the joys of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to study and had to accept that tasks like laundry and cleaning weren’t going to be done perfectly. Completing the degree took her a little over three years.
“It was worth it to challenge myself, and the discipline required was no different than if I were training for a marathon,” she says. “It helped to know that the gerontology program is important to our CEO [Michael Leader]. His willingness to make an investment in his co-workers provided great inspiration and made me feel like I had a certain responsibility to reach a goal. I have great respect for the opportunity Country Meadows provided me.”