NMU Center Benefits Aging U.P. Population

Northern recently established a Center for Gerontological Studies to benefit the Upper Peninsula’s rural aging population through education, research and collaboration with regional service providers.


Patricia Cianciolo (Sociology and Social Work) is director of the center. She said a campus committee spent a couple of years exploring ways that Northern might distinguish itself in the area of gerontology.


“Given the rural location in which we are located and the fact that the average age of the population is increasing, we wanted to do something in response to the unique aspects of that demographic,” Cianciolo said. “We started academically, with the addition of a gerontology minor to promote careers in aging, but we were simultaneously working on a center. We consulted with John Krout, a nationally recognized expert on rural aging, and the director of a very successful gerontology center at Ithaca College in New York.”


The committee met with key decision makers on campus to outline what needed to be done, and then sought support for the concept from Rep. Bart Stupak and Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The lawmakers’ second request for federal funding was successful. With help from $196,000 in grant money, the NMU Center for Gerontological Studies evolved from an idea to a reality.


“We are really a collaborative arm of the community and we apply an interdisciplinary, team approach,” Cianciolo said. “We don’t – and won’t – provide direct services. But we can spark excitement about careers in aging for students and those already in the field. Northern is taking steps to conduct a regional needs assessment of the educational and specialized training needs of service providers and may be in the position to help to develop programs that will meet those needs. We can also help in the area of research about older adults, which is typically lacking in rural areas. For example, we could potentially develop programs in nursing homes that would help patients and their families make the transition from the community to an institution.”


Cianciolo offers the following examples of research topics either under way or in the formative stages that might ultimately benefit the aging population: using mental rotation tasks to make comparisons between people with Parkinson’s disease and their peers without the condition; facilitating more effective communication between patients with dementia and their caregivers; studying casino activity and its impact on older adults; promoting healthy behaviors; and investigating the benefits of animal-assisted therapy.


The center also offers public presentations on relevant topics such as elder law, active aging, and Native American elders. The next event is scheduled from 7-8 p.m. Thursday, April 15, in Pioneer B in the University Center. Peter Lichtenberg, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University, will present, “What Michigan Needs to do About Dementia.” Lichtenberg will review a recent report by the Michigan Dementia Coalition, which he chairs.


“We have a good relationship with the institute at Wayne State,” Cianciolo added. “Our center is like their rural counterpart, so we can do some urban and rural comparatives.”


Cianciolo said there are a disproportionate number of older adults “aging in place” in the Upper Peninsula, while younger people leave the area for employment opportunities. There is also an influx of newly retired people who choose to live out their remaining years in the region.


“The aging population here has unique needs,” Cianciolo said. “Weather is literally a factor. Other issues are transportation, the distance between services, accessibility to cost-effective and quality continuing education, and funding for services given the relatively small population base. Older adults are not a liability by any means – they are assets to a community. But they do face unique challenges. The goal of the center is to promote education, research and collaborative efforts that benefit older adults and enhance their quality of life.”



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Updated: April 23, 2004