Spotlight Iowa City: Changing the perception of aging


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Aging is often a subject most people want to avoid.

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports the elderly population will more than double between now and the year 2050, and almost 20 percent of the population will be considered elderly by then. As the country gets ready for a dramatic change, Mercedes Bern-Klug, a UI assistant professor of social work, is working to change the perception of aging.

“Age is just one marker,” she said. “It’s not all that useful anymore to know somebody’s age, because there’s so much variation. What it means to be older is wide-open right now.

“We’re relearning aging, and what it means to be older is changing, because we have people who are reaching old age who are healthy for the most part.”

Working to expand the role of a social worker, Bern-Klug is the head of the Aging Studies Program in the School of Social Work. There, she works with students from different disciplines to find how they can alter the social environment in nursing homes.

Funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation, Bern-Klug conducted the first-ever national survey of nursing-home social workers.

She and seven students had to stuff 2,000 envelopes to get the information she needed.

“She loves to analyze and solve problems,” said Patricia Elkington, a coworker and bereavement counselor at Mercy of Cedar Rapids. “Those are two of the things she does really well. She’s inquisitive and curious and always looking for ways to expand the field of social work, especially connected with elders.”

Most of the work the 49-year-old does on aging centers on nursing homes. She also works with people who have cancer, and she has the difficult task of helping people with end-of-life decisions.

“We’re in a unique situation in human history because we’ve never had so many people really live long enough to die elders,” she said.

She said people used to expect to know when they’re going to die, but “those days are over.”

Bern-Klug said many people live under a myth, believing that we are all independent of one another.

“Our society doesn’t like frailty,” she said. “We’re not really trained well to see how we’re interdependent of each other throughout life.

“That’s really stigmatizing in our culture a little bit. Our culture needs to change and one way to do that is to really begin to emphasize how we are all interdependent throughout life, and if you’re not, you sure aren’t very efficient.”

The Sioux City native said older adulthood isn’t a class of people, it’s a stage of life. She also thinks the age group is an untapped resource.

“I love stories about people’s lives,” she said. “I like to see how people think about their lives. When people are 80, 90 years old, they have something to say, and I can learn from them.”

Professor Lorraine Dorfman, 79, has known Bern-Klug since the latter was a student in her class almost 30 years ago. In fact, Dorfman directed her Honors thesis when she graduated from Iowa in 1984.

Last summer, the Aging Studies Program was looking for a new home and a new director.

Dorfman knew just the person.

Bern-Klug “was the logical person to do it,” Dorfman said. “It was just a natural that she lead the program. I would have expected her to do well, and she has. I’m proud of her. She’s like a professional child.”

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