The State of Gerontological Counseling

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By 2060, it is expected that 20% of the American population will be 65 or older.

Every day in the United States, over 10,000 people turn 65 years old; by 2060, it is expected that 20% of the American population will be 65 or older. These changing demographics will continue to challenge the counseling profession, which has a long-standing yet complex history of serving the older adult population.

Interest in gerontological counseling gained particular momentum in the late 1970’s, when national projects from a range of disciplines began addressing the gap in services available to older adults. The counseling profession created new ways to address older adult mental health, including: the development of the Competencies for Gerontological Counseling, which consolidated several related domains of older adulthood, such as transitions to later life, wellness models, counselor functions and roles, and group work with aging communities; the National Certified Gerontological Counselor (NCGC) credential, an initiative created by NBCC to foster both an interest in and a commitment to working with older adults; and the approval of a CACREP specialty track, the gerontological counseling specialization.

Read more from AgeWell: A 26-Year Content Analysis of Gerontological Counseling Research

However, by 1999 the NCGC credential had been retired due to a lack of interest; by 2003, only two programs were accredited under CACREP’s GC specialty track, prompting its elimination.

Training Age-Informed Counselors

In spite of these setbacks, counseling students continue to express interest in working with older adults and focusing on age-related issues, including grief, retirement, caregiving, and intergenerational family issues. What’s more, in 2009 Thomas Foster and his researchers found that 19-35% of students surveyed expressed interest in working in settings such as a hospital geriatric unit, hospice, or even a nursing home.

Counseling students express interest in working with older adults and age-related issues, including caregiving, grief, & retirement.

AgeWell aims to fuel enthusiasm for gerontological counseling among graduate and doctoral students. Through research and practice, we have found that this begins by incorporating discussions about aging and older adulthood into the counselor education curriculum. For instance, a life span development course provides many opportunities to discuss issues such as shifting population demographics, multigenerational families, and how an aging population will impact the counseling profession. Similarly, social and cultural diversity courses are ideal environments for introducing constructs such as ageism and age privilege and connecting these conversations with the topics of diversity and intersectionality.

Read more from AgeWell: The Impact of Ageism and How Counselors Can Counteract It

Furthermore, AgeWell has helped graduate and doctoral programs create practicum and internship placements in which older clients can be served. Identifying potential site supervisors who have experience in working with older adults is an important step, as it ensures that trainees are given adequate opportunities to reflect on their own perspectives on aging, disability, advocacy, and related issues.


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SPOTLIGHT PROJECT: Warm Hearth Village

In the fall of 2018, AgeWell and Virginia Tech’s Counselor Education program aimed to create a placement for graduate and doctoral students to gain practical experience delivering mental health services to older adults. They found the ideal partner in Warm Hearth Village, a senior living community in Blacksburg, Virginia, whose holistic approach to healthy aging aligned with the values of the counseling profession. Warm Hearth Village now hosts a second-year master’s intern each academic year, who provides pro bono counseling to residents while simultaneously exploring advocacy opportunities for older adult wellness.

Founders Forest Townhouses |   Courtesy of Warm Hearth Village

Founders Forest Townhouses | Courtesy of Warm Hearth Village

Warm Hearth Village Center  |  Courtesy of Warm Hearth Village

Warm Hearth Village Center | Courtesy of Warm Hearth Village

Nick Gowen, a graduate of Virginia Tech’s Counselor Education program and the first counseling intern at Warm Hearth Village, was able to provide over 250 direct hours of counseling to residents and over 600 total hours of mental health–related training focused on older adults and intergenerational issues.

Incorporating gerontological issues into my education awakened me to who I want to serve as a counselor.
— Nick Gowen, former Virginia Tech master's student

“My internship experience wasn’t just a way to check off boxes for graduation,” Gowen said. “It was the catalyst for finding my calling.” After completing his internship in a senior living community, Gowen now plans to dedicate his professional life to serving older adults and advocating for mental health access in older adulthood.

“If gerontological counseling hadn’t been my focus in my internship—not to mention a regular topic in the classroom—I doubt I would have found my perfect professional fit,” Gowen said. “Incorporating gerontological issues and real-world counseling into my education awakened me to who I want to serve as a counselor.”